Don’t dare call us ‘big society’

One year on from David Cameron’s launch, Scotland still doesn’t seem to have fully embraced the “big society” concept. It’s not that we’re a nation of dullards who cannot grasp such lofty ideas. It’s not because we think the government ought to control every element of Scottish life. And it’s overly-simplistic to cite Scotland’s perceived disdain for all things Tory. As Antonia Swinson, CEO of Scottish Social Enterprise Coalition, puts it we’d rather “leave the English to their spirited debate about whether the ‘big society’ represents inspirational and long awaited reform” while we get on with the business of actually “shifting accepted norms of Scotland’s public service delivery in whatever way we can”.

Swinson’s comments may be blunt but party-political they are not. She’s not saying we need to specifically steer clear of Tory rhetoric, but rather that, as we’re geographically and politically miles away from the big society Westminster beach ball, us Scots can concentrate on developing a meaningful model of civil society. Whether we call it big society is neither here nor there.

Civil society, in its true sense, has had something of a resurgence and social media is allowing that to happen. While councils and other public sector bodies have been slow to react to the growth of social media, networks of citizens linked by a common cause have grown up organically. Social media is taking the place of the town hall by providing a space to share ideas and make things happen. Non-profits are beginning to realise that they can move beyond clicktivism to genuine activism if they spend time building a movement online.

As Rosie McIntosh, Oxfam Scotland’s media and new media officer, puts it: “I hear talk of apathy, but I don’t see it. People care. People speak out, even on issues that are never likely to affect them directly.”

Oxfam Scotland’s Citizen Journalist Network has allowed the charity to think about campaigning and communicating in a new way. It’s not about them telling people what to think and do, it’s about ordinary people speaking up about the poverty and injustice they see in the world. Citizen journalists are Oxfam’s eyes and ears on the ground and that’s incredibly valuable. Importantly, the standard of the writing and the complexity of the arguments that are presented through the network aren’t your usual Daily Mail keyboard warrior fodder. The effort put in by each citizen journalist in the network is anything but clicktivism.

Similarly, animal protection charity OneKind have been building up a movement of like-minded individuals loosely connected through Facebook and Twitter. OneKind’s supporters have had their say on big issues; they sent some 6500 emails to MSPs asking for a ban on snares after OneKind simplified the process via social media channels. When people were outraged by Edinburgh Zoo’s plans to cull three healthy Red River Hog piglets Onekind launched an immediate Twitter campaign against the zoo, using the #savethehogs tag. Within hours the tag had been used thousands of times and the zoo made a u-turn on their decision.

It’s not just big organisations using social media to redefine big society. Some of the best examples come from small community groups influencing real change at a local level. When the council ran a budget consultation which many locals perceived as skewed, Greener Leith, a local residents’ group, responded with an alternative online poll. Greener Leith have also used social media to crowd source ideas to help people leave their cars at home — leading to the local council investing hundreds of thousands of pounds to make it happen. In a similar vein, the North Kelvin Meadow Campaign and Cumbernauld House Trust have successfully used social media to bring together local residents in an attempt to, respectively, save local green space and a historical building from developers.

Be Good Be Social, Scotland’s first social media gathering for charities, social entrepreneurs and community groups has become a showcase and laboratory for these successes. What’s clear from the Be Good Be Social discussions online and at the events is that real movements emerge naturally. Civil society action comes from the grassroots. It can’t be imposed from above by a Westminster policy. While David Cameron might like to claim it as his legacy, we know that, in Scotland at least, a thriving third sector is in our hands. Just don’t dare call us big society.

Comments welcome over at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/voluntary-sector-network/2011/apr/05/redefining-big…

  • David Jarman

    Hi Ross, a very lucid post.I wonder if ‘big society’ rhetoric is giving third sector activists, and other interested parties, something to kick against. Raising the profile of this sort of work, and the personal/social motivations that make it happen, is helping to define it.You might be interested in a post from Matt Frew (@graffiticloud):http://bigmatt.posterous.com/big-bad-society