Ec + f2d *SE – bm = Big Soc
Empowered communities + framework to deliver X Social enterprise – barriers to market = Big Society.
I have always passionately believed that we underestimate the skills and the talents that exist within our communities, and given my own experience, I know that this underestimation is no more evident than within areas of complex need and multiple disadvantage.
Over the years I worked in Gillingham at Sunlight Development Trust, peoples’ understanding, not only of the problems but also of the possible solutions, never failed to amaze and inspire me. People knew, and at times instinctively, how services could be better designed and shaped to meet their needs more effectively and more efficiently. And frequently these people were in the midst of their own personal crises and tragedies.
But stepping forwards and choosing to take action was not always the way that things happened in Gillingham. Many people simply had the confidence that they themselves could create change within their communities knocked out of them. This normally occurred after finding no open avenues through which to influence the way that things are done, or being told that they had no role to play in delivering things; in some cases it took more than six months for a CRB check to come through, in other cases they were told that they did not have the requisite qualifications, language or experience to participate. This kind of experience has forced many talented people to become passive recipients of what the state delivers because every attempt to become an active participant has ended in frustration. Too frequently, people’s ideas and energies have been signposted to death and eventually referred, and then further referred, into a chasm of inaction, a vacuum of opportunity.
The fact that at Sunlight we were minded to offer opportunities rather than services created a genuine community driven movement. And the fact that during the ten years I was there, more than 60 community groups established themselves shows that the Big Society vision can become a reality.
But for Big Society to achieve its ambition, we cannot underestimate the task that is required in overcoming the scepticism that has been created over generations. People will not simply rise up and begin to influence, create and deliver, particularly in the areas where neighbourhood cohesion is at its worst.
In Gillingham, the majority eventually got the message and began to believe, after years of learned cynicism -or perhaps for the first time -that everyday citizens could influence, develop and create solutions that would effect change within their communities, neighbourhoods and lives.
Existing catalysts will need to be resourced and new ones established that can rebut the cynical cries of ‘that will never work’ or ’we tried that before’; we will need social enterprise leaders to raise aspiration and ambition and community development workers to facilitate ideas into action in a very local way . We will need access to assets, we will need to remove existing commissioning barriers and create new opportunities for communities to deliver themselves. Using social enterprise as a backbone, profits that are generated from service delivery will be able to seed the next generation of Big Society activity long after the Big Society Bank has invested all of its dosh. However early signs are not too encouraging; the DWP’s one size fits all approach (and that size is XXXXL) is the antithesis of localism and the Big Society we’re promised; it contradicts so much of what has been promised to our communities, social enterprises and community groups.
Whether in health, community safety, youth provision, employment, training or elderly care, if communities are given the opportunity to deliver as promised and are given the tools, resources and market opportunities to do so, I for one believe that the Big society vision, over years or perhaps decades can finally and sustainably be achieved.
But this is neither a short term nor quick fix to our recent fiscal crisis. This is about demonstrating an ideological commitment to developing resilient, sustainable communities that are healthy, empowered and flourishing. And for this to happen, such a commitment has to be shown right across Government, nationally and locally, and my guess is that it will have to be forced rather than simply encouraged.