Learning by doing: a social entrepreneur’s take on Big Society

LearningRevI've been reading a few of the responses to the Big Society vision outlined by the new government. For example, you can get Stephen Bubb's take at ACEVO (pdf), and Martin Brookes et al's perspective at New Philanthropy Capital. Both worth reading if you get the time, raising some interesting challenges.

But a response that resonated with me from our work here at SSE was one that came through to me on my TheyWorkForYou alert (timely, seeing as we are now in a new era of open data): Lord Mawson, who founded (with others) CAN and the Bromley-By-Bow Centre, put forward his thoughts in the House of Lords in the Queen's Speech debate. You can read the whole thing here, but I've selected a few sections that stood out to me from the social entrepreneur / practitioner's perspective. Seeing how this was picked up and covered once I'd tweeted it round, it seems that others also found it relevant. Key points? Back people, not structures; encourage "learning-by-doing" environments; cross-sector partnerships; don't reinvent, but build on the work of those who have innovated.

Lord Mawson:

"We all know that it is crucial for a new Government to lay solid
foundation stones on which real change and development can grow. Real
change is elusive and may not come to fruition until a Government have
left office. Effective innovation can take a generation and requires
committed individuals to champion it. It is rarely captured in a policy
document, written by what my colleagues affectionately refer to as "the
bright, young things". Real change has to be grown and deeply rooted in
communities, otherwise, as I suspect that new Labour is discovering, it
will be blown away like the sand when the first gust of wind comes


"…What are the lessons? How do you create a big society and lift the game
in education, health and welfare? First, I would suggest that this
Government support organisations that already have a successful record
of reforming public services. Do not reinvent the wheel, but build on
what works. They should back success and learn from their many years of
detailed practical work. Do not, as new Labour so often did, take their
best ideas, pass them to the Civil Service machine and exclude these
experienced innovators. Let them take the wheel. Support them and enable
their efficiency. Do not think that it is now the Government's job to
take control. It is not. They should take the long-term view.


"I would ask the Minister how he will practically encourage new
environments where people 'learn by doing'. Will he get his hands dirty
by planting the seeds of enterprise in the fertile soil outside the
comfortable but dry world of theory? If this new generation of
politicians is to gain any understanding of how the real world works in
practice, and not hide in the bubble of Westminster, I would humbly
suggest that each Member of Parliament should become involved in one
project in their constituency to play their part in building the "big
society". Do not pontificate about it: do it. Legislators might then
begin to understand the relationship between legislation and practice
because attempting to deliver a new school, health centre or service is a
practical nightmare nowadays, given the number of contradictory hoops
laden with half-baked ideology that practitioners like me have to jump
through. The confusion that exists between delivery and democracy is a
minefield. The micro is the clue to the macro. Learn from it and gain
the public's respect in the process.


"the idea that devolving power to local authorities will deliver a
plurality of outcomes is not always correct either. Local authorities
are not neutral when commissioning services. They often have an aversion
to selecting innovative approaches because they do not understand them.
Many of their staff have only ever worked in the public sector. They do
what they have always done, but change the wording on the forms to
please the Government of the day. Look carefully and you will still see
the same bodies under new clothes. Local authorities are often the least
likely to choose an innovative approach to service delivery…


"Partnership is a great thing and the present financial crisis is the
time to embrace innovation. Never miss the opportunity presented by a
good crisis. If you are to deliver, I would humbly suggest that you do
not rely on structures or theories, but on people. Back the best people,
be they in the business, public or social enterprise sectors, and,
funnily enough, you will be fair to everyone."


On reading it all again, I'm also struck by his focus on relationships, and trusted relationships as the foundation of useful, productive partnerships. This was also something that came up continually at the Chain Reaction Stronger Communities event last week, and seems central to painting the right pictures on the canvas of Big Society.

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