Skip to content →

If Big Society is the answer, what is the question?

Eureka by Ben+Sam via FlickrMake yourself lucky, be happy, BS?

If you hang out with management theorists, you will know by now the essence of the prevailing zeitgeist.  Whether Richard Wiseman is talking about luck; whether Martin Seligman is talking about happiness; or John Seeley Brown is talking about edge, we have a common formula that is applied over, and over.

Following are some notes I made reading a paper by Keith Grint of Warwick Business School on leadership in local government.  He begins with a great question 🙂

If Big Society is the answer, what is the question?

Keith Grint of Warwick Business School asks:

If Big Society is the answer, what is the question?

The questions (I think) are

  • How do we do local?
  • Why is doing local better than doing central?
  • And, does ‘doing local’ work better than doing central?  After all, surely the whole idea of politics is to seize the commanding position and dictate terms?

To answer the how, why, what and whether of local

To answer the how, why, what and whether of local, at least to answer the how, why, what and whether of local using theory, we need to begin with the theory.   Let’s check our assumptions first.   At the same time, we’ll see that we are assuming, rather than proposing in scientific sense, that local is the “dog not the tail”.  (If anyone knows a non-dog metaphor that will work as well, please let me know!)

Once we’ve grasped, the idea that we are dog, and political change is the tail, then we want to know “how”.  And the task of popular writers is to explain the “how” well enough to stop people disappearing into the bottomless pit of despair and victimhood that is part of the self-story when we think of ourselves as the tail.  That Brits love the victim story is a different post.

Today, I’ll try only to explain how we start change at a local level which is what I think Keith Grint was talking about and what management scholars and their ilk can tell you a lot about.

The theory of act local

The theory of “act local: begins with some beliefs about leadership.  If you have differing ideas about leadership, nothing else I write will make any sense at all.  So, try these on for fit.  If they don’t fit, all else will be a logical exercise. If they do meld with your beliefs, you might find a sense of relief in the account of “lead local” that follows.

Two basic beliefs about leadership

Leadership is not air; it is the wind.  When leadership is there, it is there. We might be able to see it coming.  We might in odd circumstances be able to build a wind tunnel.  But for the most part it is ephemeral, situational and transitory.  Nonetheless we know it when we feel it and we know it when we see its effects.

Leadership is not a map; it is a place.  When you are there, you are there.  When you are not, you are not.  You are not a leader-in-waiting.  You aren’t leadership-material.  You are either leading right now in this place with these people.  Or, you are not.

One basic proposition about national leadership

UK’s future is not made in Whitehall.

It is made by us. Because leadership is like place and wind, the UK is made and led through our local squabbles and the place-by-place, moment-by-moment decisions we make where we are, where ever we are and whomever we are with.

So, how do we set about making UK’s future at local level?

So far so good – if we believe that leadership, of necessity, of its very essence, is a local, situational and transitory phenomenon with nonetheless real consequences, how do we act as a local politician?

One basic assumption about politics

Politics is about defining space.  Politics is about defining who gets to be here and who get to talk.

One basic proposition about leading the politics of radical change.

Cynically, party politics is a device for keeping us apart.  Defining history is about connecting with people we don’t normally talk to.

I’ll repeat that.  The politics of change, the politics of defining history, is about connecting, not with people like us, but with people we don’t normally talk to.

The nexus of leadership and politics

So, to pull together ideas about leadership and politics – we believe leadership is in its very essence local but nonetheless we have political structures which determine who is in and who is out – or in plain terms, who gets to be part of the conversation.

To set off radical change, we have to change who talks to whom.  Or natural instinct is to huddle with people with ‘common interests’.  Actually, we must do something else. We must expand the conversation to a ‘complete world’ of everyone who has an interest.

To take a stark example, if I were campaigning to reduce immigration (which I am not), the intelligent political approach would be to include the immigrants (and their employers).  That the campaigners don’t shows us that they aren’t really serious and that they will always be somewhat surprised by the results of their political initiatives.  They simply haven’t done the work of connecting people who have an interest.

Changing the future of our country, then, is changing who we speak to!

The “how to” of modern politics

And now to the “how to” because after all, the reason why I am writing this at all is because people think they are not able to affect the future of their country (preferring to whinge but that’s another post.)

Is politics viral?

Sometimes it seems that politics can be viral.

Take Egypt.  Wael Ghonim puts up a Facebook page at just the right moment.

But, was the page just timing or relevance?  Without being a historian of Egypt, I think the page became a lever on a fulcrum of wide-spread concern among people who have generally have neither need nor opportunity to speak to each other on a daily basis.

And with lever and fulcrum, as Archimedes said it would, the world moved.

The page was the lever.  The fulcrum was the concerns of many people partially connected and ready to be connected further.

Is viral politics enough?

Some people thing viral politics is enough.  I don’t think so.  We still have to do the ‘foot slogging’ of door-step politics. We have to build relationships painstakingly.  We have to build our coalition (woops, dirty word in UK).

Simply, if defining history is building new connections with people we don’t normally talk to, we have to build those connections.  We have to initiate the connections and we have to sustain them with repeated contact and mutual respect.

What’s more, we have to engage with people who not want to connect with us.  It might take a while to build the connections we need.  But of course we don’t mind if we really believe in the future we are imagining!

Is success assured?

Again, without being a historian, the Facebook page in Egypt came at the end of an era of making connections and making connections and making connections.  Wael Ghonim didn’t intend to start a revolution.  He put up a Facebook page, and while he wanted to connect with others, he had no idea how important those connections were to become.  The Facebook page might not have succeeded.  There had been many attempts to rally Egyptians.  This was the rally cry that came when the connections were enough.

Simply, change will not happen unless we believe in it enough to begin without any guarantee of success.  If we don’t believe in our people enough to begin, if we don’t believe that we are enough; we will never make enough connections and we won’t have the Facebook page, or whatever happens to be the lever in our movement that tips the final balance.

We never know exactly when the tipping point will be.  We have to begin in faith of our dream and our people.

And is one big viral event is enough?

Sadly, not.  A big viral event may give us a head-start.  A big viral event like Tahrir Square dramatically improves the self-efficacy of everyone takes part.  They will volunteer readily next time and won’t be easily put off by challenges.

But as one swallow only makes us think of summer, we need many successful events for active citizenry to be the norm.  Actually, we need many successful events to trust each other.  We need success to offset the disappointments and to build the momentum.

If we believe in the future that we say we want, we need to do the hard slog of building the connections and maintaining them over the challenges, triumphs, disappointments and tears of real world politics before we will be rewarded with deep and longstanding change.

So if you are banking on one big viral event, you will squander the benefits of the event, for benefits are huge but not enough on their own.

And should we wait for politicians?

I wouldn’t!   Old guard politics will produce more of the same.

What can you and I do?

What has to happen is you and I connecting to people we think are worth listening to.  No proclamation from Whitehall will ever make that happen.  This depends on whom we believe are worth listening to and whether we can be a****d to make the connections.

What we get back depends on what we are willing to do.  England, Britain, United Kingdom is us. If we want change and we haven’t changed something small today, we are simply talking BS (oh dear, what did I say?) 🙂

Change something today – get lucky!

The advice for starting change at local level is the same advice that psychologists will give you for making yourself lucky (and happy) (and indeed for giving up smoking or losing weight!)

The advice from psychologists is simply this.

Do something different today.  Drive to work a different route. Speak to the person next to you on the train.  Give up your seat for someone on the tube.

Mix it up.  Connect.  Connect.  Connect.

  • Complete your world by connecting with everyone you need to take part in the conversations you know are just waiting to happen.
  • Start to tell the collective story.  Start to tell the story of your collective .
  • Learn what other people want too.  See where you can help them and see where they are delighted to help you.
  • And, include the people you think you can’t stand (But talk to them later! Start with someone who is just new or different!)

How long will it take?

I don’t know for sure. Psychologists aren’t  hot on time.  But, the poets and gurus say you will see results in three months and life-changing experiences in a year.

Will you begin to lead locally?

What have you got to lose by trying?  You only have to talk to someone new each day and do something different like take a new route to work?

What will you gain?

A more interesting day for a start.

A life experiment second.

Maybe something bigger third.  The curious will go for that I think.

Resources

Leading questions: If ‘Total Place’, ‘Big Society’ and local leadership are the answers: What’s the question? Leadership February 2011 7: 85-98,

To get a copy of the paper, you’ll have to email the author Keith.Grint at wbs dot ac uk.

Similar Posts:

Published in Business & Communities

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *