Many people don’t like Big Society because it is very easy to draw a direct line to cuts. If citizens are more involved, then less government staff will be needed to run services. But there are some people, myself included, who believe that if people were more involved in their communities that society would actually be better - not diminished.
Embedded in some perspectives on Big Society is the possibility of citizen involvement being the key to solving some serious intractable problems on which our systems have made limited impression. These include things such as youth offending, substance abuse, depression and loneliness.
In education special attention is paid to environmental factors in development. Urie Bronfenbrenner integrated much of the research in developmental psychology into the Ecological Systems Theory.
This model acknowledges how important our immediate environment and the overall social culture is to your behaviours. Further work and research has also identified that there are ‘protective factors’ involved in people thriving in the world. Our current focus on ‘resilience’ also stems from understanding what that looks like close up. Below is a chart I have borrowed from a paper by Colleen McLaughlin of Cambridge School of Education, which describes some of these protective factors. The opposite of protective factors are risk factors.
I have also come to the thinking that Big Society and more citizen involvement could be better than service provision from my experiences working for Youth Offending. Here I witnessed first hand how impotent the system was to make meaningful change for many of these young people. And the system was trying really hard to do just that. Small infractions of acceptable social behaviours are picked up on the early warning system. Young people are instantly surrounded by a number of different services, from education to social services to health services. They have long meetings with their parents in police stations.
But ultimately they are problematic and are often living is social circumstances where they are shunned by the community, the schools try their best to exclude them as fast as possible. I know that this isn't because the schools simply don't want these types of pupils to slant their statistics, but it becomes very hard to explain to a fundamentally nice, but increasingly lost, young person who you are trying re-engage with some positive vision of their own future. There may be multiple government safety nets but there are so few community embedded safety nets. Often these families are totally isolated by their problems. And this is not about scolding young people for being rowdy in public places. This is about communities knowing one another, people who are used to working together, who look for opportunities for young people (and all people) to contribute to the overall wellbeing and prosperity of those communities. As many services I saw surrounding a young person I saw nothing that would even begin to start to replace any real sense of care, the care we give one another without being paid.
There are some very big questions about Big Society that remain unanswered - but they are certainly worth the time and effort needed to answer them. If some of these difficult problems cannot really be touched by government services in any meaningful way, how do we foster this sort of 'community' as a protective factor? Secondly, but an equally important question: where are the plans to really understand if this 'community' does have a proper and measurable impact on these larger intractable problems? Matthew Taylor questioned this very strongly in his post The irredeemable anecdotalism of the Big Society - and many people are agreeing!