This evening saw the first ‘Big Society Network‘ open night. The Big Society Network is a new organisation*, linked to, but distinct from, the ‘Big Society’ as a core discourse in current government policy making. The open night, facilitated as a rather chaotic open space event packed into a small space in the DCLG offices, brought together over 100 people interested in exploring what the Big Society Network was about, and how their work or issues fit with it. Big Society Network CEO Paul Twivy introduced some of the ‘big ideas’ of the Network – from creating a mutual open to everyone to join that would provide insurance for any volunteering activity, to the terribly framed ‘Your Square Mile‘ concept** – and then handed the floor to Steve Moore who led the open space.
I was in a group looking at young people in the big society, and promised to blog a few quick notes (some from my comments, others from other’s in the groups – apologies for not managing to jot down everyone’s names / affiliations) – so here they are:
- It’s important to challenge architects of the Big Society Network to avoid institutionalised age discrimination. If a mutual is to be created – make sure anyone, however young, can be a full voting member: no arbitrary restrictions preventing under 18s or under 16s from being involved.
- We should extend that principle to all community groups – and avoid ‘youth exceptionalism’ – where the involvement of young people is seen as a separate add-on to other structures in the Big Society. This is a theme that Bill and Liam have started to develop in talking about the shift from a Children’s Rights to a Children’s Human Rights dialogue over on Right Space.
- We do, however, need to recognise the importance of giving young people a balance of space and support. Space to develop their skills, views and ideas. Support to engage when processes for engagement are stacked against the newcomer, or when particular young people have particular needs.
- We need to challenge a ‘dependency culture’ between young people and support workers (by no means always the case, but a problem in some contexts). Support workers depending on young people for their jobs; young people depending on support workers when they could be developing skills to find voice, influence and involvement independently, or relying on peers and wider community networks of support. With major cuts coming to youth support, the imperative for this change may be getting stronger.
- Rather than criticise the existence of ‘professional young people’ (or, as we could put it another way, young people who have developed skills and articulate ways of express views), we need to challenge them to go on and use their skills for the benefit of society and community. Good work with young people is a balance of challenge and support, and is grounded in an ethical world view: challenging empowered young people to look at how they can empower others, think about anti-oppressive and inclusive working, and to use their skills to advocate for wider social change. (And in the process, support time can be moved to support those young people who really need it)
- Can we move towards rethinking the support young people get by giving them more control over it. Hand-over the budget to young people to choose what support they want to pay for from workers and members of the community.
- With ideas developing in other areas of Big Society Network about Big Society ISAs and other funding instruments, we need to make sure that ideas of youth-led micro-finance and co-decision making with young people and adults are at the heart of the plans that emerge.
- And last, but not least, Big Society Network needs to be thinking about how it will hear and engage with constructive and critical voices and action about it’s own plans from children and young people.
Whether or not you think the language and proposals of Big Society takes us forward, or misses the mark, how would you advocate for the role of young people in the Big Society Network and it’s associated ofshoots?
*It’s pretty important for The Big Society Network to have a strong argument of how it’s avoiding the Pareto Problem and ending up as another round of social innovation conversations, picking off the easy things to solve, but yet again glossing over the tough challenges. Some mention of picking off some of the practical barriers to all levels of action (e.g. sorting insurance problems for local action) do give some hope here, but it would be good to hear more of commitment to engaging with tricky problems rather than being broad based and blind to them.
**A short note on Your Square Mile: To claim “There Are 93,000 Square Miles in the UK – We tend to only hear about two of them: the square miles of the City and Westminster.” seems to me to reveal a lot about the world-view and perception of the world of the designers of this particular part of the Big Society Network. To define local community in direct reference to Westminster and the City, and to frame an idea of the world in such neat grid squares, ignoring the complexity of local geography, doesn’t seem like a very good start to me.