In order to understand the potential for People Powered Change, through people organising for action in neighbourhoods, it’s important to understand just how people may relate to each other in an area.
And for Big Lottery Fund and other to consider how funds and other support may help small groups, it’s necessary to have an idea of how people may manage without full-time workers, grants and organisational business plans. Will a big influx of funding and paid workers help or be disruptive, depending how it is offered?
Research published by the Third Sector Research Centre gives some deep insights into the nature of local activity, developed through micro-mapping in two neighbourhoods. It’s part of the TSRC Below the Radar work that was also explored at a seminar earlier in the year, and a series of online discussions.
Our research in just 11 streets of England brought 58 community groups to our attention. None of these groups were registered organisations. The report describes the various ways they support their immediate and extended communities. Many showed enormous creativity in the way they gained access to limited resources, drawing upon their own members as well as those beyond their immediate community. Some were conducting entrepreneurial activities, others had gained small grants or been given donations in kind.
The groups we identified were undertaking a whole array of different activities, supporting specific facets the community, such as faith or ethnic groups, elderly or disabled people, or connecting people around a particular interest.
One group offered lone parents a chance to meet with others and help their children to learn through play. Another group offered social activities to women from a specific part of eastern Europe. We found a community farm looking after abandoned and abused animals, a support group for refugees and a local activist group who were improving their local environment.
The groups operated in very different communities and social contexts, and were well embedded into their local communities.
With all the public debate about service delivery, this highlighted just how many services are already being provided by small grassroots groups and individuals. These services play a vital role in these communities, but one that is very different from the role played by universal public services.
The study highlights the importance of shared spaces and collaboration, so that groups can make the most of their skills and connections. This was something that Drew Mackie and I played through with a group at the recent Community Matters conference, when the challenge was how groups could maintain their community buildings in the face of cuts. Discussion there mirrored the TSRC research findings. We started with a focus on individual business plans, but found as much value was generated through the collaborations that groups organised.
Because none of the groups studied in the TSRC research was registered as an organisation they are below the official radar. As Eileen Conn says in this interview, they are different from larger groups. To take an analogy from physics, maybe they should be seen as energy waves rather than matter.
There is a lot of energy, if you know where to look. Andri concludes:
What findings do show, however, is that there is a lot going on below the radar and local community level. More so, if this is to be applied to the new UK government’s socio-political interest in Big Society’s policy strand on ‘social action’ to encourage people to get together and do things for themselves, then arguably these below-radar groups can be considered as already doing the ‘Big Society’ – or, even more so, could be considered as an amalgamation of little Big Societies.
This suggests that there are at least two levels of discussion about local action action – whether termed Big Society, Our Society or People Powered Change. One is that investigated by the Commons public administration select committee, which reported as I wrote here that people don’t understand what Big Society is, and a new Minister is need to co-ordinate action. That’s the area where debate is fiercest about the impact of austerity measures leading to reduction in funding for voluntary organisations, and the feasibility of those organisations taking on more public service delivery.
The other area is that of the many small societies, where people are finding how to make the most of life in their neighbourhood, often in ways that haven’t changed in decades. That doesn’t mean changes in policies and funding don’t make a big impact – but it requires a below the radar focus to understand what that might be.
The research paper is worth a detailed read, not least for the (anonymised) descriptions of the areas and the people in them. I do hope TSRC, or others, will be able to follow through with some real-life portraits, helping people tell their stories for themselves. We saw some of that at the recent I Love Thornton Heath event that I reported here.
John Popham and I may be able to capture something of the diversity (and fun) in local areas in the Celebration 2.0 work that we are starting, reporting from local festivals and other events. That’s when the richness of the local scene becomes most apparent.
If you take a policy focus, it might be tempting to think about a Minister for Small Societies, and apparently No 10 is already thinking that Small is Beautiful.
I personally think that something non-governmental yet powerful would be helpful, and Big Lottery Fund could have a lot of beneficial impact by acting as a convenor and champion in this field. Some of the potential came through in ideas for the workshop, and reports from it.
At the moment a lot of the ideas about what might be helpful at local level are scattered, and different interests are promoting different models, as I wrote here. BIG is one of the few organisations that could provide or support a neutral, trusted space to explore further methods like mapping, gaming, social and community reporting as well as those being developed in a range of programmes.
What’s important, in my view, is that is should all be done in ways that make sense to the people and groups below the radar, not just those scanning the usual screens.