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Let’s co-design civil society, before government does it for us

May 21, 2010

I’ve been writing a lot at Socialreporter about the Big Society plans promoted by the Conservatives, and now adopted by the new coalition government - backstory here. The plans mean doing more with less public funding, with promised opportunities for charities, social entrepreneurs and volunteers, and a role for social technology both in empowerment and service improvements.

The Left thinks it is a cynical ploy to mask spending cuts, the Right may hope it is, and others who give it a slightly sceptical welcome need to dive in and make sure it isn’t just designed by the civil servants (however good their intentions). What follows aims to help thinking about how we might all do some designing for civil society.

Over the next few weeks we’ll see lots of discussion among national nonprofits organisations and social entrepreneurs about just what the plans mean for them, followed by submissions to the new Minister for Civil Society Nick Hurd. There’s a thoughtful piece here from community development specialists Gabriel Chanan and Colin Miller that sets the bar high.

The Big Society Network will undoubtedly be working out how to follow through its proposals for a mutually-owned 15 million-strong organisation to promote and support development. The chair, Nat Wei, is also special adviser to the Minister responsible for Big Society … so it is serious stuff. Expect rapid action. Background here.

Think tanks will also weigh in. Respublica have already published their blueprint for the Big Society: document here, with an interview here.

I think the danger is that those who want to contribute to the ideas believe this should be treated as another old-style consultation exercise. So each interest group will prepare its manifesto or submission, send it to Nick Hurd, ask for meetings, and hope their ideas figure in the final plan.

I believe there is instead an opportunity rapidly to embrace the spirit of New Politics (which may not last long) and promote a different approach, perhaps in alliance with the Big Society Network.

The task is enormous, from the policy side: how to develop a framework and support for an enormous increase in social action - from for-profit social business to unpaid volunteering - without having big budgets as incentives, when many of those you need to engage are doubtful about the whole thing, and may well have voted against it.

It reminds me of times when I’ve worked as a facilitator, retained by a public body, to engage residents who (I was told), were apathetic, inactive and probably downright hostile. In fact, when you actually talk to people, they are likely to be passionately concerned … but not necessarily about the council plans as presented. They have their own concerns. They’ve probably been consulted before, and found their views ignored.

In that situation what doesn’t work is to deploy a range of participation methods - surveys, focus groups, workshops, online - and just hope to get more response than last time. You have to trust the residents and ask them what processes might interest people … and get the public agency to agree to join in the conversation with real commitment to listen and follow through. You have to co-design the engagement process …. not just consult on the Plan. There have to be boundaries, honesty about what is possible, and concessions … just like forming a new political coalition.

A few years back Drew Mackie and I were funded by the Ministry of Justice to develop a co-design game that anyone could use to do this - it’s available here - and I’ve written a lot on engagement processes on an earlier blog called Designing for Civil Society - although I didn’t come up with that name, as you can see here. Just inherited it … maybe it’s worth reviving.

The benefit for the power-holding organisation in the new approach is that you can change the nature of the relationship that you have with customers, service users, citizens, activists, volunteers and work out who does what best. It requires a lot of trust … and that only works if power-holders are prepared to relinquish some control. They can’t get half way through and then change the rules … or if they do, there will be big trouble. It’s risky, but then if you are in trouble anyway, what’s to lose?

So - for what it is worth - here’s my suggestion to Nick Hurd, Nat Wei and the Network.

Develop a framework that provides a set of values for engagement (open, transparent, participatory), and some clarity about what’s on offer in terms of funding and support. Do some network mapping to find who’s who in the landscape. Then instead of just consulting with these many interests, invite them to become part of government, and to work out how they would engage the people that they work with. Who better to know? And if they can’t or won’t do that, then you may get a good idea of how democratic and engaged they are. It’s in line with what we have heard from Network chief executive Paul Twivy.

Adil Abrar of Sidekick Studios summarised it well in a post Big Society Means Us:

“It’s up to us — social entrepreneurs, communities, technologists, public servants, business – to make it mean something. As far as I’m concerned, politicians should just set the direction, do the big speeches, and then get out of the way as quickly as they can. I’m not looking for solutions from them. We tried that. It was a bit rubbish”.

As I wrote on socialreporter, it’s DIY time.

So what next? I hope the Network take an open and participatory approach to their development, start networking, and create some spaces to carry conversations through. Next week New Start magazine are hosting a get-together of people, and Chain Reaction are encouraging groups to self-organise as well as hosting an event in London. There’ll be lots more.

As a small contribution, I want to throw in the work on co-design workshop methods … both the engagement game I mentioned about, and our socialbysocial game that’s proved very successful. There’s also events like the Transformed by You workshop that Amy Sample Ward and I facilitated with Kent and Medway councils. Amy explains here how that model can work. Other facilitators might share their techniques, and this could all add to the participatory design process the Network or others might promote.

I think there may be scope for a modest site that brings together some of these techniques, and also aggregates the very distributed discussions about Big Society now taking off.

I check this idea out with a few people, and maybe start a group on this site as a first gathering place.

What do you think? Should we co-design civil society … or leave it as a consultation process?

sxs/lets-codesign-civil-society-21-05-2010.txt · Last modified: 2017/06/12 15:20 (external edit)