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 I spent this morning at an event on the Big Society hosted by David Halpern’s Institute for Government. Some observations:

The audience was full of people who have spent years trying to get Labour to devolve power, take risks, engage citizens etc. The mood was one of support for the BS with an eagerness to explain why it has proven so difficult to get ministers and civil servants to understand and act on the principles. 

Lord Wei (who heads the civil society programme) gave a very coherent and comprehensive presentation. His mistake, I think, was not to be more open about the dilemmas and challenges; inviting the audience to help resolve these problems. I wondered whether the BS policy development might benefit from something like the Policy Action Teams that were put in place by Labour’s Social Exclusion taskforce. The PATs were far from perfect  but they did create a buzz of intellectual excitement and fostered collaboration, as well as developing some important ideas

David Prout from Communities and Local Government made an interesting speech but, perhaps, unfairly, the thing that people most noticed was the rather over the top praise he gave for Eric Pickles, and the speech starting with the opening – apocalyptic – paragraphs of Phillip Blond's book, Red Tory. Blond’s book has many virtues but the exaggerated and inaccurate first paragraphs are not among them. It seems the English civil service has moved from a position of chastity (we don’t get into bed with politicians) to serial monogamy (we enthusiastically get into bed with whoever is in Government). (And, yes I’m sure that probably is New Labour’s fault.)

As usual, Barry Quirk, CEO of the Borough of Lewisham provided an engaging reality check to all this talk of community engagement. He repeated his mantra about distinguishing between social goods (things that one section of the community wants to own or have access to) and public goods – which are genuinely a  resource for the whole community. As Barry said, a big task for local authorities is trying to ensure that places like community centres feel like public as well as social goods.

The whole event underlined for me how so much of our work here at the RSA hits the Big Society button. Many of our lectures touch on these issues of civic engagement, innovation and human agency. Our research focusses on citizenship, public service co-production., social networks, place shaping. And, as a Society, our biggest project is modernising the ethos of Fellowship so that it is all about social responsibility and civic innovation. There was much talk this morning of the importance of institutions in fostering a Big Society. This is a difficult  journey along which we have travelled further than many other long standing organisations.

The RSA should be right at the heart of the public debate, not just nationally but globally and locally. Of course we make mistakes, and get things wrong but I hope everyone associated with the Society sees what a huge opportunity we now have.


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