Can the Big Society learn from Obama?

6 July 2010 | By Cause4 staff

Much has been made of David Cameron’s big idea, the ‘Big Society. After 13 years of alleged government interference and state control Cameron seeks to create an era in which each of us stands up and helps address society’s problems by focussing upon our own communities.

We are told that the ‘Big Society’ will encourage every adult to become part of a neighbourhood group, a trained army of community organisers, to devise and micromanage projects, it will create a ‘Big Society Bank’ to help fund charitable and social enterprises and support the enrolment of every 16 year-old in the country in a National Citizen Service to promote tolerance, community spirit and social responsibility.

The success of Obama’s campaign, Obama for America, perhaps one of the most effective campaigns in political history, relied on mobilising the support of the masses. It was the first time we have seen the power of social media and the internet utilised to significant effect. The follow-up organisation, Organizing for America, seeks to build on this and create consensus around Obama’s common aims, utilising grassroots activists and ordinary people to help spread the word.

Interesting models are emerging. For example, an alliance between local businesses, the local government and charities to mobilise some 360,000 local residents to carry out voluntary work in the town of Wichita in Kansas. Previously Wichita endured some of the highest crime-rates in the country with 60% of its children living below the poverty line. To encourage voluntary work, various rewards - such as childcare vouchers - have helped to incentivise people to work towards the common good. Results have been so dynamic that Wichita is now reported to have one of the lowest crime-rates in the country.

Are there comparisons to be made between Cameron’s new idea and Obama’s? Does their political rhetoric match up? And what are the implications for charities and social enterprises?

There is a crucial difference between Cameron’s vision and Obama’s. Obama was able to create a real sense of excitement for change, a new vision and a real sense of taking responsibility for social welfare from the grassroots upwards. This has spread naturally through many communities driven by the prospect of improving their own communities and their own lives.

The ‘Big Society’ did not obviously capture the imagination of voters in May 2010. The biggest challenge that the Government now faces is to persuade a sceptical public - so accustomed to governmental control and provision - to take responsibility into their own hands. Much less nannying and much more self-determination?

There are interesting parallels between the challenges confronting Cameron and those facing charities. Too often perhaps too many charities focus on promoting their causes in a worthy but unexciting way and fail to engage those in and around the communities in which their activities take place. A greater sense of involvement in and responsibility for your own local community – as evidenced in Wichita, for instance – and a stronger sense of grassroots activism and action can only lead to more immediate and telling outcomes.

Social networking can have a profound effect in providing a talking point where people can feel compelled to act but other approaches will be needed too. It is the time for charities and social enterprises to create new tools, platforms and programmes where people can get involved, take action and become involved. This is the real challenge for the Big Society.

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