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This is the seventh in a blog series by Keith Harrison-Broninski FRSA that explores a new way for cities, towns and rural communities to tackle the effects of austerity. The series explains the ideas behind the approach, how it was initially proven within the NHS, and how it has now become a larger scale initiative Town Digital Hub (TDH) supported by the RSA.

Previous blogs have looked at the social purposes of a Town Digital Hub (in particular, to provide a safety net for austerity, but also to reduce digital exclusion and provide new youth opportunities), the benefits to public sector services management (in providing a means to reconcile a market-based approach with the inclusion of third sector organisations) and the economic impact (in unlocking the value of volunteering).  Here I will look at a key political aspect - the integration of central and local democracy.

Two months after his election as UK Prime Minister in 2010, David Cameron launched the "Big Society" initiative, which aimed to create new powers to support localism, volunteering, and social enterprises. In 2011 the coalition government created a new bank to fund community-led initiatives ("Big Society Capital") and new legal powers for councils to support them (the Localism Act 2011). However, since 2013 the term "Big Society" has not been used in public by David Cameron or appeared in any government statements. The Big Society Audit published by Civil Exchange in January 2015 showed how central government had in fact undermined the initiative, through cuts in charity grants, policies which favour the private sector in public services contracts, and restrictions on the right to challenge government policy through the courts.

What happened? Well, for a start, few people on either end of the political spectrum liked Big Society. The left perceived it as a stratagem for reducing the size of the state (Ed Miliband in The Guardian, 19 July 2010) and the right saw it as giving responsibility to people unfit to wield it (Ben Rogers in the Financial Times, 6 October 2010). So, undermined by its proponents and criticised from all sides, it is not surprising that Big Society sank. But the ripples left as it did so have resulted in a grass roots social movement that may be changing the face of politics. 

On 22 May 2015, John Harris described in The Guardian how, in towns across the UK, highly motivated groups of independents have won control of their local councils, in what he suggests "might be part of a general political wave". Independents now control Frome (Somerset), Arlesey (Bedfordshire), Buckfastleigh (Devon), and Alderley Edge (Cheshire), and similar groups have emerged in towns including Liskeard (Cornwall), Newbury (Berkshire), Bradford-on-Avon (Wiltshire), and Wells, Wedmore and Shepton Mallet (Somerset). In the vanguard of this movement is Peter Macfadyen, a key player in the "Independents for Frome" movement and Leader of Frome Town Council, whose how-to guide "Flatpack Democracy" shows step-by-step how to take control of your own community, and use the powers granted by the Localism Act to create real social change at grass roots level. Mayor of Frome Kate Bielby says, “It’s very exciting, just this feeling of, ‘Wow – there’s stuff we can do.’” 

By contrast to this can-do attitude, two things doomed the original Big Society initiative. First, it was strongly affiliated with party politics, with its inherent one-size-fits-all approach to policy. Second, Big Society was attempting to stimulate local action from the centre. People who want to be led aren't suddenly going to become leaders themselves just because someone tells them to. It's like the scene in Monty Python's Life Of Brian where Brian tells the crowd to stop looking to him for leadership: "You don't NEED to follow ME, You don't NEED to follow ANYBODY! You've got to think for yourselves! You're ALL individuals!" - and the crowd responds, "Yes! We're all individuals!" (except for a lone dissenter who claims, "I'm not...").

By contrast with the Big Society vision of centrally-stimulated local action, most community groups form without external prompting, often in response to regional social issues - redevelopment, flooding, public transport cuts, poverty, and so on. Not only do they see party politics as a distraction, but they have little interest in the mechanisms of central government. It might be more appropriate to call the new social movements based on community groups and volunteering "Small Society". 

At this point, no-one seems to be decrying Small Society as they did Big Society. However, unless communities take care, the very strength of their community groups may undermine their power to act for social change. They typically represent a wide range of single issues – so how can they act cohesively? 

There has to be structured engagement around core topics in which all groups have an interest – and the debate must recognize how each group can guide and inform it. The principle underlying TDH is that the natural core topics for Small Society debate are public services – since by definition these are the infrastructure of the community.  So the stakeholders in TDH collaboration plans include community groups along with other local organisations (including the public and private sector).  However, the collaboration plans provide structure for only part of the debate.  If you are part of a collaboration plan, then (and this is the first of the 5 Cs) you have Committed to helping achieve specific goals of that plan. How did you get to that point? 

The collaboration theory underpinning TDH includes a theory of negotiation – an iceberg of which collaboration plans are only the visible tip.  A collaboration plan represents the last of a set of 4 “conversations”. The first is a “Conversation for Context”, for sharing background information and defining current issues. The second is a “Conversation for Possibility”, for finding potential issue owners and resolution strategies. The third is a “Conversation for Disclosure”, for agreeing terms on which potential issue owners are willing to participate in resolution. The fourth and final is a “Conversation for Action”, for defining and carrying out collaboration plans to resolve the issues. 

A key reason that so much negotiation fails – not just at community level, but at all social levels – is that there is almost no general understanding of the fundamental difference in purpose between these conversations. So they get mixed up, and negotiations that could succeed in a few hours instead last weeks or months and descend into chaos. The collaboration principles underpinning TDH are equally applicable to trade union disputes, large scale political conflicts and everything in between – and once this is recognized, new opportunities may emerge for the inclusion into politics at all levels of special interest groups that represent disadvantaged people, minorities, the environment, and much more. 

The impact of this is hard to quantify, but surely the first step in reducing any conflict is a structured way for those involved in negotiation to listen to people’s concerns and progress to action by consensus and with transparency. Scientific collaboration may be the key to a new form of democracy – not just at local level, but at all levels. 

More information about TDH is available here. 

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