Our Society

Social action. Honest exchange. Grounded learning.

What can we learn from a failing network?

Clay Shirky has a lot to answer for. You remember all that stuff a couple of years back about ‘cognitive surplus’? The idea that while we were all watching telly, we really had oodles of untapped talent and goodwill just waiting to be put to use.

Well, it turned out not to be that simple. Perhaps many of us were watching telly because we just needed to zone out. Perhaps some of us had exhausted our cognitive surplus already. And maybe some things just weren’t quite as worth doing as we liked to imagine.

Which brings us to Our Society, and thence to big society. Our Society is a voluntary, unfunded network of several hundred people who liked the idea of a space where folk could ‘be inspired by possibilities, share struggles, and learn together’ (there’s a longer version of what we were trying to do here).

Over most of the last two years, a core group of eight of us have sought to keep the Our Society network alive while juggling the ordinary challenges of life in 21st century Britain: redundancy, moving home, managing increasingly precarious freelance work, job insecurity and more.

Those who joined the network doubtless faced the same challenges. What’s certain is that, by and large, the vast majority didn’t in the end have the energy or enthusiasm to inject life into the discussions and share their projects and stories. This was despite early enthusiasm which produced a crop of imaginative ideas (mapped here by David Wilcox) and some practical outcomes in terms of the thinking developed in Dudley about future relationships between the local council and voluntary and community organisations.

There was another problem, which was that Our Society was set up as a response to the debate raging back in 2010 over the government’s ‘big society’ idea. In between those in one corner who felt the people could take over all the functions of the state, and those in the other corner who felt the agenda was simply the dismantling of the state altogether, were a wide range of people who wanted to test and explore some of the ideas on the table: co-production of public services, a shift in power from bureaucracies to human-scale associations, and a move from representative to participatory ways of doing government and politics.

Big society failed as a political concept because hardly anyone was interested. The politicians weren’t bothered about collaborative ways of doing politics, and most people weren’t naïve enough to try to take over the functions of the state while being refused the resources required to do it effectively. The debate died, not in battle but from neglect.

Inevitably the discussions on Our Society tailed off, mirroring the public debate. Where Rowan Williams’s robust critique might once have been a call to arms, today it seems more of a postscript. Meanwhile David Cameron’s shift to the Conservative right may have marked the end of big society as a serious policy: divide and rule has replaced ‘all in it together’.

But it would be wrong to imagine Our Society only failed as a network because the national debate moved elsewhere. It also failed because network building takes time and energy, and nobody had enough of either to facilitate conversations, spark new discussions and add new content.

We were never able to link up the local and the national, the online and the offline. As David Wilcox pointed out in his post a few months ago on the challenge of networking civil society, ‘these don’t join up’. And when you’re in a space that doesn’t link effectively with others, you start to feel you’re in limbo rather than at the heart of a creative process.

But as a failed network or source of conversation, Our Society is in good company. Even the ‘glory of failure’ group has been a bit subdued lately. Looking at the kind of space Our Society has occupied, we see the likes of Urban Forum and CDX struggling to survive; the National Community Activists’ Network continues through the dedicated coordination of one volunteer; and at the other extreme, Your Square Mile, billed as Britain’s biggest mutual, has failed to take off despite £830,000 of lottery funding and the presence of a chief executive and two directors. Meanwhile the Big Society Network has rapidly morphed into a niche network for social entrepreneurs.

There are other approaches, which start with action and working at a personal scale. Tessy Britton’s post on what she calls a creative/collaborative approach is well worth reading. 

But I can’t help feeling there’s still a need to join up the macro and micro more intentionally, applying the learning from the local to the processes of policy and government in ways that can make life easier and more productive for everyone. We’re nowhere near that, and Our Society, as an experiment in tapping into the wisdom of crowds, hasn’t had anything like the impact we hoped.

So what learning would I draw from this experience? For me, it’s to be clearer about the distinction between ‘need’ and ‘want’. I think there’s still a need for independent, collaborative spaces were people can network and learn from each other without signing up to an agenda. The fact is that people don’t currently want it enough to be active in such a space.

The networks that work well, like the Transition Network, have a clearer common bond that their members care about. Our Society was too diffuse. The also connect up locally – take Project Dirt for instance – and enable face to face connections in a way that Our Society struggled to achieve with no resources.

They also demand the continuous attention of committed people. Our Society’s core group were trying to find scraps of time among many other commitments; so, probably, were most of our members. It’s like trying to start an engine with no fuel in the carburettor.

So what kind of network would work well? Examine the writings of the doyenne of network weavers, Beth Kanter, and you’ll see there’s nothing accidental about the ones that succeed. They demand work, not just cognitive surplus.

They also need to be human and fun. Doing stuff we ought to do all the time might feel worthy, but it doesn’t feel good. Perhaps we’d have done better by starting with a pint and a pie. And at a time when fun is being removed from so many people’s lives, that’s a worthwhile cause in itself.

Still, the worth of an experiment is found as often in failure as success. As Samuel Beckett observed: ‘No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

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