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The Big Society will struggle to make a practical difference to people’s lives unless there is greater clarity regarding the role of the state, as well as improved ways of measuring the capability of communities to get involved with local decision making, according to two reports from the RSA.

From Big Society to Social Productivity concludes that any paring back of public spending without properly considering the role of the state in building social capacity in its place could have serious consequences, both socially and economically. 

View the From Big Society to Social Productivity report 

View the Civic Pulse report 

The report concludes that building social capacity (and the Big Society) needs strong public services; their role should be to support, facilitate and mobilise social action and improve the capacity of people to solve their own problems. 

Like the Big Society, social productivity is positive about the energy and capacity of citizens to improve social and economic outcomes, but focuses on how the state (central or local) can be proactive in enabling or catalysing this change.

A socially productive approach would also require new ways of measuring social value and citizenship. The RSA’s second report Civic Pulse argues that local policymakers and public services need help in identifying which groups of people and areas are most lacking in the capabilities that enable and encourage people to be active citizens. 

The report argues that we cannot rely on traditional measurements for an accurate picture of active citizenship. Despite their value, both the Place and Citizenship surveys were ill-suited to the current context and the changing role of both citizen and state. They focused too heavily on the satisfaction and perception of public services (what the state could provide) and tended to ignore the underlying drivers of active citizenship. 

Commenting on the reports, Director of Programme, Adam Lent said:

“The Big Society has to be more than just an exhortation for people to do more. These two reports show there is an urgent need to provide clarity on the role of the state in building social capacity, as well as a need for local authorities to be supplied with better information so they might engineer services that target those least likely to get involved.”

A new research tool which we put forward, Civic Pulse, would address these gaps and be more fitting for the current context. It would measure:

  • Subtler aspects of ‘everyday citizenship’, such as acts of kindness and reciprocity

  • Contemporary forms of civic behaviour, for instance time-banking and hyper-local blogging

  • Underlying drivers of active citizenship, including ‘softer’ measurements. For example, levels of confidence and emotional resilience

  • Social assets as well as deficits, for instance the presence of skills and strong social networks.

With the information collected through the Civic Pulse survey, local policymakers and service practitioners would be able to identify the areas and groups of people where levels of active citizenship are lowest and where drivers are most lacking. They would then be able to reengineer existing services and develop new initiatives which can increase levels of participation by plugging and gaps in capacity and by making best use of the assets that have been identified.

View the From Big Society to Social Productivity report 

View the Civic Pulse report


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