Taking the BS out of the Big Society

Posted on 19/07/2010


After a lack of interest the first time around, the Big Society was finally launched to the consumer today.

The anticipation was immense – the Twittersphere was groaning under the #bigsociety trend and the months of preparation and planning by Big Society agitators was finally to pay off.

Except it still hasn’t. Not really.

It remains a rushed through, badly communicated initiative and ended up with the #bigsociety trend being turned into #bigcon or even #bs.

But I actually think the Big Society is one of the most exciting, revolutionary and potentially lasting (positive) legacies of the Cameron government.

However, today started badly.

PR Week figures showed that over half of people had little idea of what the Big Society stood for and a third had never heard of it (despite previous launch attempts before the general election and in mid-May at Number 10).

And as the day wore on, it became clearer that the failure at the other launches of not having a single clear message to communicate was being repeated.

Yes it’s about creating an army of volunteers, empowering communities to look after their own services and taking on responsibility for what councils or government used to do. But then, it’s also about local accountability for police services, setting up schools, national movements, like Martha Lane Fox’s Race Online, and (despite protestations) it’s also about downsizing government and cutting government subsidies (if you listen to Boris, it’s also about fat people).

But as much as the message was confused, so too was Labour’s response.

Tessa Jowell went on the airwaves to claim the Big Society was just “a brass-necked rebranding of programmes already put in place by a Labour government.”  But it soon became clear that a better line to take was Unison’s, who claimed it would lead to cuts (the leadership candidates were either silent or, like Ed Miliband, latched onto a charity line).

In fact, what the left said didn’t matter as official opposition was led by charities, some of whom got their attack in over the weekend. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations said any cuts mustn’t “scupper the chances of achieving the Big Society,” while the Muscular Dystrophy campaign said “it is not acceptable that financing of essential services is reliant on charitable funding.”

And with further opposition from the Twittersphere and comments on news websites, this was not the glorious launch Cameron had hoped for.

There are five things the Government needs to do to better communicate the Big Society (and it certainly shouldn’t attempt another re-launch):

1 – Ditch the jargon (see my PR Week comment).

2 – Simplify the message. Make it either about volunteering and local services (as the Big Society Network seems to think) and then evolve it nationally, or be honest and make it about delivering more for less. 

3 – Unite your influencers and source real examples.  Getting to a point where NCVO and charities (who should be enthusiastic supporters) were so negative was a huge mistake and a communications failure.  These groups should be providing the real examples of successful delivery, so the government didn’t have to use speculative examples from pet-councils.  

4 – Be clear on the call to action and don’t try too many at once.  If you want the public to get involved, give them one way to get involved – then again, grow their enthusiasm.

5 – Identify the real barriers to taking up this call to action and address them through targeted communications.  There are many barriers, but in time, effective communications working with wider civil society could break these down. 

Do this and the #bs factor will start to be removed and the real, positive, impact of the Big Society may begin to be realised.