Move away from the ‘toxic’ brand and look at what we’re doing in practice


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I have been left wondering recently: are we suffering from Big Society fatigue?

Speaking at a conference to mark the anniversary of the Big Society launch, i was a little disappointed to find myself presenting to no more than two dozen people. Similar events I have attended in the past had drawn much bigger audiences, so does the idea of the Big Society no longer have any ‘pulling power’?

I suspect there may now be boredom with the Big Society as a brand and a reluctance to spend any more time discussing the concept at a theoretical level. However I believe there is still a lot of interest in how local authorities are applying the idea on the ground and how the Big Society has been an impetus for a wide range of new approaches in local government.

This was certainly the impression I took away from the ‘intimate’ conference I attended. Here my fellow speakers and I concentrated less on the somewhat high-concept questions we had been asked to address and instead took the opportunity to talk about the practical things we had been doing as local authorities.

Each speech was followed by a flurry of detailed questions as delegates sought to find out more about what others were doing and what they could duplicate. It struck me that there really is a wide ranging ‘toolkit’ of new Big Society approaches out there from which local authorities can borrow.

So while there may be less appetite for grand speeches, Downing Street press releases and abstract sounding conference topics; there can be a vibrant debate about the Big Society at the local government level, between local authorities who have innovative ideas and first hand experiences to discuss.

While this exchange was going on it became clear to me that people aren’t really interested in how to deliver the Big Society from above through grand Council-designed initiatives. Instead they want to know about how they can help people to take control of their lives and start changing their communities from within.

That would explain why the parts of my speech that provoked the most questions were about my Council’s attempts to increase the capacity of Sutton’s people to take greater control of borough life – through initiatives like our recently launched Citizens University and our Life Centre.

I strongly believe that this is about more than just volunteering. While volunteering is an important aspect of how people can get involved in their communities, it is just one possible answer to the question of how local services and citizens should interact in the 21st century.

At Sutton we are exploring a myriad of new approaches to this question, from nudging people into positive behaviours like recycling to involving them in the complete redesign of services.

It is important to recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all approach: different services call for different approaches. Sometimes people simply want more responsive services that they can influence through the smarter use of technology. We have therefore made it possible to report pot holes and graffiti from your smart phone. Other times they want to be involved in the complete redesign of services and therefore we have allowed whole communities to come together and shape the redevelopment of their neighbourhoods and the redesign of local transport routes.

Finding the right approach to getting residents involved can be a matter of experimentation, but it is a process that many council’s up and down the country are committed to and there are a lot of exciting things going on …You just have to look beyond the re-launches and comment pieces of Westminster to find them.

Once you move away from the ‘toxic’ brand and start looking at what local authorities are doing in practice, Big Society thinking is clearly gathering pace with more ‘pulling power’ than ever.

About the Local Leaders series

The Localism Bill is pushing us towards new, more personalised ways of service delivery. At the same time, the Spending Review requires councils to deliver savings of 28% by 2015.

This will lead to unprecedented change in our public services. Local government needs strong, effective and creative leadership.

This area of the LGiU’s local democracy blog is devoted to such thinking with posts written by Council Leaders who we believe are the most innovative and inspirational in local government.

Cllr Sean Brennan is the Leader of the London Borough of Sutton