The Big Society in the North starts to take shape

On Monday I blogged about the Big Society in the North. Today it started to happen.

At lunchtime I met Tanwir Rauf and Sophie Ballinger of CDX and John Popham to sketch out a few ideas. There’s lots of interest too from voluntary sector networks – NAVCA, Voluntary Sector Northwest and Yorkshire and Humber Regional Forum – and from the Centre for Local Policy Studies at Liverpool Edge Hill University, as well as from a good smattering of other organisations and individuals.

So where is our thinking going? Here are a few key points. They’re up for debate and fine tuning, and we aren’t going to be precious about them.

Why the Big Society in the North?

First, because the Big Society isn’t anyone’s copyright or trademark. It is what we make of it. And we want to make something of it that isn’t dependent on or answerable to London government or London networks, but can engage in a dialogue of equals.

And it’s a bit like the Big Issue in the North: it’s about sharing real people’s stories, and it will rely entirely on generosity and goodwill.

What will the Big Society in the North be?

What it won’t be is an organisation or empire. It will be a forum and opportunity for people to share what’s happening, and to network the networks – voluntary, citizen-led, private or public.

What should it do?

We see three key aspects that don’t really happen at the moment, or don’t happen effectively.

One is to link up the work of a large number of existing networks and organisations in a way that doesn’t duplicate work, in order to share ideas and innovation.

The second is to tell real stories of community action: what people really care about and why. We want people to be able to tell their own stories and we want to link to the stories others are telling, in traditional and social media. We’d like to provide a platform for new voices to be heard.

The third is to map what’s going on in a way that’s useful to people and can be user-generated. We’re looking at Ushahidi as a possible platform for this. Contact John Popham if you’d like to be involved in this side of things.

The mapping can be categorised into a number of areas: innovation, new organisations, existing work, ‘community anchor’ organisations, hyperlocal websites, communities of interest, and much more. The point is that anyone wanting to engage with local action will be able to see where things are already happening. We’d welcome technical support with this so we can create something that’s really simple and user-friendly.

And it will also map threats and cuts to citizen action and community work. This is important. The most cogent criticism of the Big Society concept is that it’s a cover for cuts, or a cheap way of sweetening a bitter pill. We think it’s really important that we map the difficulties as well as the opportunities, and that we do so in a way that can speak truth to power. This may not be popular with some but we’d like to do it anyway. Again, we’ll need help in making this happen.

What are our values?

This isn’t going to be a philosophical treatise. We value citizens’ action to improve their communities, whether individually, in networks or in public agencies or private businesses.

We believe in the importance of autonomy, self-expression and self-definition. We value people’s ability to tell their own stories. We want a respectful space to record people’s ideas and actions.

We want to be collaborative and organic, not formal and top-down. Everyone’s welcome as long as you’re not in it to promote your organisational, political, ideological or commercial agenda.

We want to be constructive. We want to celebrate what’s good, share what’s useful, support what is in danger and engage with whatever comes out of the London-based Big Society conversations, as well as with whatever emerges in other parts of the UK.

How will we do it?

We’d like this to be an iterative and inclusive process. I’m starting the conversation here because it’s a place to start. But as soon as possible we want to set up an online forum that’s open and collaborative, which a personal blog can never be. If you want to get involved in that, Sophie Ballinger is looking at suitable models.

We think it’s important to have face-to-face contact and idea-sharing. We welcome the idea of a Big Society Network open meeting in the north.

We’d like to have an informal gathering of interested people in Sheffield on 27 July, from 5-7pm. The purpose will be to generate more ideas and flesh out some of this initial thinking (or dump it if necessary). If you’ve got a venue we can use free of charge, let me know. If you can supply tea and cakes, even better. We’ll do the rest.

We’d also like to hold a bigger event, probably in the northwest, in the early autumn. Again, let me know if you’re interested and can help. The Big Society Network are welcome at both and at anything else we do, but we want to develop a north of England vision of what the Big Society should become where we are.

From these initial gatherings we’d like people to be able to go off and do their own thing, but in a way that encourages collaboration.

What’s vital is that this is focused on action and on sharing, not just on talk. So we’re keen to work with people who are developing tools that might be useful, groups where people can link up and new forms of mutual support, including social media.

We have no idea what the Big Society in the North will become. There’s unlikely to be fame or money in it for anyone. But we do know there’s a job that needs doing, and we’d like to be part of it.

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