Complex analysis

It’s an interesting paradox that while David Cameron has so far been a politically successful prime minister – if a general election were held today, he’d be likely to get a better result than he achieved at the 2010 general election – he’s been dramatically unsuccessful in securing support for his major philosophical contribution to British politics.

Having recently co-authored a report on the government’s big policy idea, I well understand the feeling of working on a project that started as an in investigation into how The Big Society might work, and ended up focusing heavily on why it hasn’t worked – at least so far. The RSA seem to have found themselves in that position with their new year publication of Beyond the Big SocietyPsychological Foundations of Active Citizenship, a report that forms part of their Social Brain programme. The basic premise of the report is that the Big Society is currently failing to gain traction because it is widely viewed as set of politicial policies that people either support or don’t support rather than a programme of cultural transformation that will equip citizens to build a society that’s more socially cohesive and sustainable.

For the report’s authors, the big issue for The Big Society is ‘mental complexity’, which is described as ‘our varied capacity to understand competing motivations and values in ourselves and others, to ‘get things in perspective’, and to act appropriately in uncertain or ambiguous situations‘. On this basis, the key question isn’t whether most people are for The Big Society, against it or unable to underatand what it is – it’s whether we are ‘Big Citizens’, psycholigically equipped to deliver it.

This challenge is not primarily related to specific elements of the current government’s Big Society agenda but to the general desire amongst politicians of all parties to get people more involved in delivering public services and promoting positive social change in local communities. This, the report suggests, calls for a major change in thinking: “Many of the existing considerations about participation seek to answer the motivational question: Are we up for it? But thus far, few have asked a related but very different developmental question: Are we up to it? Perhaps if we focus more on the latter question the former will begin to take care of itself.

For the report’s authors, the process of cultural change needed to bring about The Big Society – described as a ‘curriculum’ – requires the development of three three key ‘competencies’ – definition – needed to build The Big Society are Autonomy, Responsibility and Solidarity.

This is Autonomy: “Autonomy is a much richer concept than merely doing things oneself, but at its heart is the idea of self-direction and freedom from external coercion. The Big Society is premised on the State, both local and national, not getting in the way of people choosing their ends, or the means to achieve those ends. Autonomy has various definitions, but here it is used to reflect the
psychological implications of subsidiarity, in the sense of taking personal initiative without state interference.

This is Responsibilty: “… the activities and behaviours embedded within the curriculum of the Big Society require a more nuanced account of responsibility, in which ‘people’ take ownership of tasks that they might previously have assumed to be the responsibility of government, and often do so together with strangers…

And this is Solidarity: “Solidarity is a hugely complex notion, and there is a large literature on the subject, but it is broadly about integration, about the extent to which we feel we are on ‘common ground’ with and have a sense of mutual commitment with the people with whom we share space, time and resources.”

To some extent the report offers a theoretical angle on the practical work being carried out as part of the government’s existing Community Organisers programme – in that in focuses on how to enable people to deliver the social change they want to deliver in their local area – but it also extends beyond that to begin to focus on the broader challenges of how societies will work as we move away from universal welfare provision.

Clearly more work is needed on ideas for building ‘mental complexity’ in practice beyond the report’s suggestions: “One implication is that community centres should be turned into transformational learning hubs which run training exercises for community leaders. A tool-box of training exercises designed to build mental complexity should be offered to community centres, particularly those already offering adult learning courses.” and “We should also encourage businesses, community organisations and other bodies to form transformational learning consortiums. For instance, businesses should work with local community groups and voluntary organisations to improve the productivity and overall effectiveness of their workforce.

Ultimately, though, while the challenge this report addresses may not continue to be known as The Big Society, meeting growing needs with diminished state resources is the toughest and most important task facing the current generation of politicians, social entrepreneurs and citizens in general. The is useful contribution to part of the debate.



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10 responses to “Complex analysis

  1. I remember hearing a statistic (which I believe to be true) that only 3% of the populous volunteer for community oriented work. And probably, this 3% is already busy doing their bit despite the cuts to their already meagre resources.

    Now I hate military comparisons, but I can’t think of anything better: it is like a mad general who completely ignores the countries standing (EXPERIENCED) army and goes out to recruit a whole bunch of inexperienced (DISINTERESTED) conscripts. This does not seem like a recipe for success. But, from being involved locally, it seems to work that way.


    • Beanbags admin

      The stats aren’t quite as bad as 3%, Mike:

      Although it’s not completely clear what the 25% (figure for people who volunteered formally once a month) relates to. For example, it might include organising a coffee morning at a church where you’re a member. Or doing the admin for a Sunday League football team that you play for.

      (Temporarily) ignoring resource issues, is it likely that a Big Society will respond to wider social need based on people choosing to do things with a financial incentive to do so. The RSA’s line in this is apparently that you can somehow create a nation of people who will choose to act in the wider social interest.


      • The 3% figure came from the Cabinet Office. This figure was used to indicate the percentage of the population who would get involved on behalf of their fellow citizens in actives such as police motoring panels or communality management groups, etc. I doubt this included Sunday Football….. nothing wrong with football or Sundays come to that.

        My key issue is that resources are being focused in nice soft (media friendly) short term projects. Community vegetable gardens are great! But how many will survive once the initial funding runs out. Worse still – who will care?


  2. Alisdair Cameron

    What is skirted over is the Ownership angle. Many,many people operate with Autonomy,Responsibility and Solidarity to deliver great social benefits, so are patently psychologically prepared: they’re already doing it
    What they struggle with is these endeavours being co-opted by a party political programme.
    Big Society as a label is dead because it is tied irrevocably to one political party,so by its very nature it isn’t inclusive.


    • Beanbags admin

      You may be right about the label but I think if/when the label gets dropped, the wider issue of getting things done with less cash is still there.

      You’re definitely right that there’s people already operating in the way suggested – and the RSA report acknoweledges that. What they’re looking at is how you build a critical mass of people who are likely to operate in this way.

      I can understand their seperation between ‘compentencies’ from ‘need’ and ‘motivation’ as an intellectual argument – in practice, I can’t imagine a situation where they don’t all apply at the same time.


      • Alisdair Cameron

        Agree utterly, David. In practice, competencies need and motivation overlap enormously.
        As for the label, I almost think that the sooner the brand and its overtly political associations die a death, the better, allowing more people to, y’know do stuff, without feeling it’ll be hijacked, the better: still tackling the same problems, but in a non-partisan fashion (or in a partisan fashion that suits those who are doing, rather than to bolster politicians)


  3. Interesting to see that they are now treading the same steps which brought economics and psychology together at New College of Florida which may be considered the seed bed for P-CED and the influence of Carl Rogers on this alternate economic model.

    It would seem that “Big Society” is now grasping at all kinds of intellectual straws to ensure its survival. .


  4. Beanbags admin

    @Mike That figure makes sense on that basis. And I don’t know if most communities want vegetable gardens or not but you’re right that their significance seems to be being over-played – after all, you can’t pay your rent with a free range parsnip.


  5. Volunter activity is also predominantly late middle aged. As I learned from the presentation given about Big Society by SW Acre network, addressing our community within the context of parish and community plans.

    Here’s a military comparison, pitched at the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations::

    ” I hope we continue to realize ever more fully that outside the box and inside the box have only a box in the way. We outside the box know quite a bit of what’s going on, many times in exquisite detail, perhaps in ways that those inside the box can’t quite as easily access if at all. We are grossly underfunded in favor of missiles, bombs, and ordnance, which is about 100% backwards. Now, with even the US Pentagon stating that they’ve learned their lesson in Iraq and realize (so says top US general in Iraq ten days or so ago) that winning hearts and minds is the best option, I and others shall continue to think positive and look for aid budgets and funding spigots to be opened much more for people and NGOs in silos, foxholes and trenches, insisting on better than ordnance, and who understand things and how to fix them. We can do that. We can even do it cost-effectively and with far better efficiency than the ordnance route. Welcome to our brave new world. Except it’s not so new: learn to love and respect each other first, especially the weakest, most defenseless, most voiceless among us, then figure out the rest. There aren’t other more important things to do first. This message has been around for at least two thousand years. How difficult is it for us to understand?”


  6. Pingback: 20th January: Transition Institute's Weekly Roundup!

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