In a bid to check whether there really are no new ideas I’ve started re-reading David Osborne and Ted Gaebler’s Reinventing Government.

It’s probably not that well-known a book today, but it was the first ‘fad’ book I remember – and having seen other titles like Nudge come to prominence (only to hear it dismissed recently in favour of Connected) along with my recollection that there’s a lot in it that is relevant to the Big Society agenda it has pushed itself back to the top of my ‘to read’ list.

As fads go it has come and gone and is now largely unremarked. Perhaps because as a species we are always looking for new and shiny (quite rightly, we don’t develop if we meekly accept what already exists and don’t ask if there could be more). Perhaps part of the reason is that it was published in 1992 before the widespread use of the internet that would later propagate ideas and new thinking. Instead, it would be referenced in the pages of newspapers, particularly after the inauguration of Bill Clinton as US President in 1993 when it was deemed to inform his and Al Gore’s thinking. Indeed, the dust jacket has a quote from Clinton, although then as a mere presidential candidate and state governor.

But re-reading I’m discovering why it created such a buzz in 90s America. It’s a genuinely exciting book and while the ideas may now be tried and tested (and perhaps found wanting) seeing them all together in one place leaves one the feeling that with an open mind and willingness to innovate anything is possible. Of course, when I first read it I did so with only curiosity, not with any ability to do anything with the contents (and I’m not in that much a different position when re-reading it), but now I read it seeing how some of its contents could work in the UK.

The basic premise of the book was that across America arms of government were discovering new ways of doing things that were more effective; improving quality, reducing cost or both. Some were fundamental re-thinks of culture and organisation, some where small tricks. In fact just a few chapters in you see things that have been echoed in books and ideas that have come since and been hailed as new and innovative, except they’d already been trailed in a book written nearly 20 years ago using examples from the 80s.

Throughout there are examples that would have been at home in the pages of Nudge, Connected or The Wisdom of Crowds. Indeed, reading it you find ideas that subsequently made the pages of Ken Livingstone’s first mayoral manifesto (it basically describes Safer Neighbourhood Teams) or the 2010 Conservative manifesto (I realised while reading it that the introduction I was reading about one of inspirations for free schools).

But what has really struck me is that the book could so easily be re-titled with a reference to the Big Society. The very first chapter “Steering, rather than rowing” establishes a principle that the role of government is not necessary there to provide every service, but to provide the leadership and support to ensure that it is provided. A recurrent theme is that where governments of any level have given up control and instead empowered communities everyone has benefited, through better services, feelings of empowerment, reduced crime or just lower taxes.

Not all the experiments succeeded – that goes without saying – I followed up on a story contained in there about what was, effectively, a housing estate taken over by residents to discover it ‘failed’ eight years after the book’s publication. But the failure came after it had trebled rates of rent collection, dramatically cut unemployment and teenage pregnancy and successfully tackled a drug problem that the police had been unable to permanently deter: all because they were empowered to work as a community to tackle their own problems, rather than existing as clients of their city government. Given the huge savings that such changes would bring (and continue to bring) it’s arguable that it wasn’t a failure at all.

But, of course, innovation is not about guaranteed success, but about daring to think that things could be better. Sadly when this was published in the 90s UK local government had hardly any flexibility to innovate. But now things are different, I wonder if it’s time for some innovative councils to dig out some copies of Reinventing Government, remind themselves of the ideas that have been forgotten and, instead of seeing residents as clients, think about how they can be put in charge again.

I’ve followed, from a distance, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) conference today. Far from having sessions on fat cat salaries this morning seems to have been devoted to dismissing Nudge to move onto a new fad involving social connections.

Nudge was on one of those fads taken up a few years ago on, effectively, changing people’s behaviour with intelligent design. Classic examples include painting a fly on a urinal (which reduced the cleaning needed because men’s aim improved) or creating the illusion of uneven road surfaces (which reduce traffic speed). There are plenty of examples on their blog. The fundamental principle was ‘choice architecture’ – designing the choices people make so it’s easier for them to make the right choice.

Push the button: For some reason everyone approached this as a pump, and assumed it was broken when it didn't work that way.

A few weeks ago we took MiniMe to the Science Museum (mainly because I wanted to see the Apollo 10 command module) where there’s a small area for younger children in the basement. A large part is water play, and one bit has air jets under various obstacles so you can see how air moves through water. The problem is that every single person who tried to activate them attempted to pump the button, very few actually experimented to discover they were buttons and you had to keep them depressed to make them work.

A silly example, perhaps, but an interesting one. The area, designed for 3-6 year olds, although I’m sure MiniMe wasn’t the only one under that limit (he’s not quite two), yet everyone, young and old, repeated that mistake. There was clearly something about the design that encouraged people to pump, but not to push. And the consequence was that no-one used that bit of equipment.

The idea that the concepts behind Nudge should be forgotten, as if it was a pair of 70s flares and a horrible mistake, is a nonsense – if the principles were valid a few years ago they remain valid now. I’m not sure why the change in belief, there is always the pressure to appear modern, but perhaps there is also the difficulty in truly adopting something like Nudge in government.

For a start are political difficulties. For example, I have long liked the idea of rewards for people getting back into, and holding down, work. The argument against is that work is its own reward and people should not need added incentive. However, the reality is that for many the idea of sacrificing 35 hours or more a week of ‘free’ time for a small increase in income is not that enticing. But adding an incentive (which need not be that much, vouchers for McDonald’s or stores) reinforces the positive aspects of working by directly linking work with positive outcomes. I would argue it far outweighs the long, and even short, term costs of unemployment.

There are also administrative and cost difficulties. If you take Wandsworth’s street parties, they were incredibly expensive – largely a result of the work that was necessary on the council’s part (since deemed unnecessary by the government). Moving to a cheap fixed fee helps encourage the behaviour we want, the sense of neighbourhood and belonging, but left us with the same work to be done and the added complication of co-ordinating across a number of events, rather than just one. However, in tough times it might seem hard to justify added costs to the council against intangible benefits to the community.

And finally there are the cultural difficulties. As I touched on yesterday it seems that we live in a culture that is defined by the negative– what you can’t do – rather than the positive – what you can do. It is so much easier and much more comfortable to think and act as enforcers in a black and white world than as the encouragers with ever lighter shades of grey.

Which all set me wondering about Wandsworth. The council is, in the neutral sense of the word, a huge bureaucracy – an effect of thirteen years of government target culture and the Daily Mail mentality that creates a risk-adverse approach to public money. Has this led to us developing barriers that discourage people from acting positively? Do you have any examples? I’d love to hear them.

In an email the other day I commented that the two big pillars of the Big Society were re-branding and permission. I don’t think this is anything particularly profound (if it is, I’m probably unknowingly plagiarising something I’ve read somewhere) and have even remarked on the re-branding aspect myself.

The fact is that Big Society is just a new name, perhaps emphasis, on something that already happens all over. I first pointed to this in relation to the Battersea High Street Big Lunch – something you can analysis almost endlessly through a Big Society lens. First there were the businesses, then the various community groups who attended the event, then the people who went along and enjoyed the day. But even further you can argue that the Big Lunch itself is a Big Society project, seeking to encourage and help neighbours strengthen their communities. It’s welcome the government is looking at promoting society over itself, but society has always been able to look after itself when it needed.

But permission is a different matter entirely, and works on different levels.

The obvious one is for permission to actually do things, whether its setting up a school, running a service or organising a street party – it’s crucial that people are allowed to do this (and remarkably unhealthy that we’ve developed a society in which we often feel the state has to give that permission).

But it goes further. We need to develop a cultural permission to try new things, and I’m not so sure that’s there yet.

To take one example, in the existing Big Society ordinary people help run schools. Parents are elected as school governors, the education authority appoint some more and the governing body itself appoints members from the community. This is totally unremarkable – no-one questions whether these laypeople should have a role in running a school of (hopefully) professional staff, and have ultimate responsibility children’s education. So why is there controversy over the idea these very same people should have the right to establish their own schools?

It might be politics, those who oppose the idea tend (as far as I’ve seen) to be on the left, with unions particularly objecting to the idea. It might just be conservatism, a resistance to change and feeling of comfort with the status quo. It might be fear, what if they don’t work out or, perhaps worse, what if they do? And I occasionally worry that it’s down to a belief that only the state can fulfil certain functions without really questioning if that’s true.

And maybe there is something deeper in our national and institutional psyche that doesn’t like change and is suspicious of the new and the novel: a feeling that we do just fine, thank-you very much, there’s nothing we need to change or learn.

In fact the permission is not so much about what we are allowed to do, but what we are allowed to try. It’s the difference between being part of what’s already there, and being part of something new. While it would attract the ire of the Taxpayers Alliance we should be getting back to a stage in which improvement and innovation (which will always carry the risk of failure) should be celebrated. It has almost become cliché (through my overuse alone) that dealing with the deficit is a huge opportunity because it can drive innovation. But it can only do that if we as a society give ourselves permission.

The following is the text of an article I wrote for the Local Government Information Unit‘s C’llr magazine as part of their Big Society edition:

The Big Society’s greatest strength is that no-one actually knows what it is, possibly not even the Prime Minister whose stroke of genius was to create a concept so vague, but so obviously ‘good’, that almost anyone can support it. Whether you want a small state, government involved in every aspect of community and social life or something in between you can find some- thing in the Big Society that will fill your needs.

Trying to divine what the government actually means by Big Society has become a small industry. Taking David Cameron’s speech in Liverpool as a starting point he outlined three strands, social action, public service reform and community empowerment and peppered his speech with words like philanthropy, innovation and ‘voluntarism’. But these are hardly new concepts, most have appeared in various government fads that have come and gone over the years (I was struck by how much the themes of public service reform and innovation resonated with the early 90s vogue for Osborne and Gaebler’s ‘Reinventing Government’). Indeed, David Cameron might view the philanthropic founding of Eton College several hundred years ago as nothing more than a proto-Big Society free school!

What is new is the need for central government to dramatically reduce public spending at a time when government – for good or bad – impinges on more aspects of people’s lives than ever before.

It’s tempting to take the cynical view that it’s a smoke screen policy to offer warm and fuzzy feelings the Treasury can no longer afford. Yet that would be overly simplistic and fail to reflect the reality. Big Society is the mantra of all politicians in government. Every department has a Big Society minister, every announcement a Big Society reference. UK government websites already contain over 13,000 Big Society references and the total grows daily. Across the country voluntary organisations and community groups are starting to think about the opportunities the policy gives them. Slowly and surely a Big Society is being built, even though no-one quite understands the architect’s drawings and vision.

If there is a common understanding it’s that local councils are not a part of the Big Society. While there may not be any diktat stating that local authorities can’t join the Big Society gang, the language rarely mentions them. In the Prime Minister’s announcement he may have named four councils as early pilots, but then went on to address the people of those boroughs and challenged them – not their councils or councillors – to identify the blockages they needed removed to build the Big Society.

And it almost seems that councils have rolled over and let this happen. Two months after the Prime Minister’s launch of the four pilot areas only Windsor and Maidenhead had published anything other than press releases related to the Big Society and how they were helping to make it work. Liverpool had not even published a press release, despite being host to the launch.

It is almost as if, after decades of centralisation and Whitehall direction, Town Halls are unable to take on the opportunity without being told. The irony is that while this is the biggest chance in a generation for councils to exercise freedom in shaping their areas, it might also be their only chance for another generation. The government’s approach to local government seems to have been populism rather than localism; should a localist minister really be telling Newham if it needs a chief executive, or Leicester its councillors’ IT needs?

If the vague nature of the Big Society is its greatest strength, it can also be a great opportunity for local government. The choice is simple, either stand back and watch the Big Society being built around us, or join in with the building and help our communities improve our neighbourhoods; and isn’t that the reason most of us got into local government?

I went along to the ‘launch’ of the Wandsworth Domestic Violence Strategy and Action Plan this morning. I was down as the closing speaker, and while I had been given a few notes by officers to guide me I ended up ignoring them. The session was thought-provoking, challenging and inspirational in equal measure – and left me at the end using my session to make a few observations and share my reflections. It was a good turnout at the event, I guess a couple of hundred where there, and they were kind enough to indulge me. And I’m lucky enough to have a blog so I’m going to repeat them here too!

My first observation was my total ignorance about the subject. I was lucky enough to grow up in an environment without domestic violence. As far as I’m aware it did not impinge on my life at all, and while I’m sure it happened, it never happened anywhere that I saw any evidence.

I think the first time I saw it as a problem and not a rarity was in 2000. As a parliamentary candidate I spent the evening on patrol with the police, and being quite gung-ho I decided to spend the Saturday evening shift with them; I expected to spend the evening visiting pubs and clubs, seeing the aftermath of fights and the police having to wade in.

I actually spent the evening going from house to house while the police dealt with domestic violence (the exception being a quick visit to check someone was abiding by bail conditions at the beginning of their shift). I might well have seen the after effects of the alcohol drunk, or the arguments started, in those pubs and clubs – but the violence took place in homes, not streets and bars.

And this, I was told, was fairly typical. Not only did they spend their Saturdays dealing with domestic violence, they spent a lot of them at the same homes.

The statistics
One of the statistics shocked me: 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence at some stage in their lives. An easy thought experiment is to apply that to my life. I have a wife, sister and two sisters-in-law. Four women.

A more sobering thought is that between them they have four husbands, one of them being me.

Using the one-in-four statistic would suggest that one is likely have perpetrated, and another suffered, domestic violence.

Of course, statistics don’t work that way, I can’t cherry pick four women and assume with any confidence one has experienced domestic violence. But then you start thinking.

Think about all the people in your life – family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, the people you meet on holiday, or at your local.

Think about all the relationships you know, from the married couples to co-habitees, heterosexual or same-sex, whether formalised by a ceremony or joint names on a gas bill.

For most of us the list will include dozens, if not hundreds, of people and then, statistically, it becomes highly improbable that you don’t know someone who has survived or perpetrated domestic violence.

This isn’t something that happens to ‘other people’.

My role… and our role
Before I went this morning I had some difficulty trying to think what I would say. It’s hard being the politician in a room full of practitioners. I can talk about the priority we place on an issue. And I did talk with some pride that the council’s domestic violence co-ordinator will soon be part of the council’s community safety team, meaning I will be the political champion for it. But it occurred to me that I’m not just the politician, I’m also one of the practitioners.

I hesitated to raise it, but this is somewhere the Big Society has a role to play. I’m conscious I might be adopting a ‘hammer mentality’ (when all you have is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail), but this is one of those areas that needs a collective responsibility. It isn’t just for the council to give housing to domestic violence survivors, or just for the police to prosecute the perpetrators, nor for Victim Support to offer and co-ordinate services.

Instead it’s incumbent on everyone not to be ignorant of a problem, not to think it happens to ‘other people’. And it’s for everyone to know there are solutions to the problem.

It’s an example of the Big Society being a civic society, which doesn’t tolerate domestic violence. I don’t expect everyone to carry the details of the one-stop shop in their head, or know about the Stay Put, Stay Safe scheme. But the more people who know about the problem, and who know that there are options available to those suffering as a result, the more the message spreads. And that can only lead to more escaping the violence and more perpetrators being brought to justice.

I’m really not that sure how interesting it is for me to write about meetings. They certainly aren’t interesting enough for people to turn up and listen. Having said all that, there were a few interesting items on the agenda of last night’s Adult Care Services and Health OSC.

I was only there for part of it, my council role is a bit of an experiment in ‘cross-cutting’ (which seems to be causing undue confusion, I have to say) so I attended only for the ‘health’ and not the ‘adult care services’ elements. To give some select highlights:

10-627 Patient records
Despite my predilection for civil liberties and occasional concerns about the expansion of the state into private life I find it hard to get excited about these things! But given the appalling track record of the state on data security in recent years it possibly isn’t surprising that the local NHS were questioned heavily about how access will be controlled and the audit trials that will be put in place to ensure record safety. I think most of the committee members were satisfied.

From my point of view the question is of balancing risk. No system will be 100% secure and, I have no doubt, whatever safeguards are introduced someone will have enough malice or incompetence to circumvent them sooner or later. However, what we need to assess is whether or not the benefits a system that means different parts of the NHS can see your relevant medical history is worth the risk of potential security breaches.

Personally, I feel happier about having an electronic medical record than old paper copies that can get lost, burnt, mixed-up, misplaced or even burgled. But not everyone would share that view, it struck me that the NHS were putting a lot of effort into creating a system that could reassure most people their information is safe.

10-628 National Patient Survey
I posted about the results from this recently. The committee members were interested in exactly why some surgeries are performing so badly when compared to some of the excellent results that other practices got.

The local NHS stated that they needed to better understand exactly why there was severe dissatisfaction with some surgeries and what they needed to do to encourage choice. They were asked to return to the committee with details of what they were doing to improve those weaker surgeries.

10-629 NHS White Paper – Response to consultation
This was an interesting discussion. I’ve not posted much about the NHS White Paper, but it represents a superb opportunity. The council has long held a policy that it should be responsible for health commission. While the white paper doesn’t suggest that it goes someway towards it.

For a start the council would take on responsibility for public health (as it did until 1974), and for establishing a ‘Health and Wellbeing Board’ however, there are opportunities to work with the GP consortia providing, for example, support on things like procurement or analytical services. In turn, this will enable a better, more joined-up set of services to residents.

There seemed to be good support for the council’s position of moving rapidly to set up the Health and Wellbeing Board here and working with GPs to establish how it could all be implement. The local NHS said they were “fully supportive”. The opposition members also expressed their support for the council’s position, but couldn’t vote for it, citing issues like the government’s naming of the white paper as a bone of contention.

10-632 Local Involvement Network – Annual report
This was an interesting report, mainly because of the thought processes that it set me on. The Local Involvement Network (or LINk) (or @WandsworthLINk on Twitter) was established a few years ago, there is basically one per borough, and is a free membership organisation that exists to formally scrutinise health and social care services in the borough. The council provides support to it.

In the white paper they continue, except they will be re-named HealthWatch and given a significant proportion of the seats on the Health and Wellbeing Board.

I am half-planning a fuller post on them because it struck me that they are, basically, an unnamed part of the Big Society. I’ve posited before that the Big Society exists, but we just don’t recognise it as such. Yet. LINks are, to me, probably in exactly the same category. They are there scrutinising local health services on behalf of residents and patients and, I would contend, in a better way than many other statutory bodies (by focusing very much on the ground level experience, than management level statistical outputs).

Maybe the first thing we should be doing in the Big Society is identifying and renaming all those parts that already exist.

There were several other health related items on the agenda. You can see the full agenda with linked reports on the council’s website.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m in a small minority of those who are excited when it comes to Cameron’s Big Society policy. In part that’s because I think it’s vague description and undefined edges could lead to some real innovations.

And looking at those areas that were identified as ‘vanguard communities’ (Eden District council in Cumbria, Sutton, Windsor and Maidenhead and Liverpool) it seems even those supposedly at the forefront of the policy aren’t getting that excited.

A search on the relevant council websites reveals very little.

The only council of the four that returns anything worth reading is Windsor and Maidenhead.

It might well be that they are still thinking through the policy implications internally, but doesn’t it rather go against the spirit of the policy not to have some of that thinking done out loud so ‘society’ can participate?

[And before anyone points it out, I know Wandsworth is no better!]

Continuing the Big Society theme from yesterday my interest was piqued by an article by Philip Johnston in yesterday’s Telegraph (David Cameron must not be blinded by his vision) in which he argues that local councils should be the vehicle, and not the victim, of the Big Society.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the article generated a number of anti-local government comments. But his fundamental point is, I think, a good one.

Local government has long been a victim of centralisation; seeing their powers restricted or stripped away by Whitehall. This was even the case with the ‘localising’ Labour government who excelled in setting targets to ensure that local councils largely did central government’s bidding.

It is too early to know whether this government will eventually succumb to a centralising agenda. But the irony is even if they don’t local government may still suffer a similar fate by seeing their powers given away to communities.

Are we faced with the possibility of schools being run by parents, housing estates by residents, care homes by relatives and councils left doing not very much?

Of course, there are some services that people may never want to run but my concern is that the services that ‘make’ an area, the ones that go towards making Wandsworth different to Lambeth or Merton, are the ones ripest for community involvement and management.

This is not a bad thing of itself, I don’t see any reasons why these services shouldn’t or couldn’t be run this way. But does it remove a local council’s ability to have any sort of vision it can put into action?

To give a hypothetical example, in Battersea the council arguably sees Battersea Park as something of a jewel in the crown, and the facilities we have in there help shape the sort of people attracted to the area. Usage would be very different if we removed all the children’s facilities and replaced them with sedate gardens. We can define the cultural tone of the borough through the events we do, or do not, allow (imagine the extreme difference between an Orange march or a Bastille Day event in the middle week-end of July). We can even help shape the fitness of the borough with the facilities we provide, from the Millennium Arena to the bike hire.

But we couldn’t do any of that if management of the park were devolved to the Friends of Battersea Park. It’s not a situation I foresee happening (as far as I know neither the council nor the Friends have even considered such a possibility) but you can use any number of council facilities as the example. What if parents were running the local youth club, a sports club the leisure centre or an Agatha Christie fan-club the library?!

I’ll be honest, this is very much thinking (or blogging) out loud. But it is an interesting question, if we followed the Big Society to its ultimate conclusion in allowing communities to run their own affairs and direct their own services as far as possible what sort of society are we creating? Arguably it would fairly self-perpetuating society, since people would run services that matched their particular interests and values which would, in turn, attract like-minded people not stimulate diversity.

Instinctively it feels to me that there’s a political divide and it would be much easier of you are on the left to say this is why the state should retain a role rather than delegating to the Big Society. But even as someone on the right who believes in individual responsibility and a small state I can see issues that need to be carefully considered. As ever there is a balance, and the trick is finding that balance.

I’m not sure I know the answers but do you? What do you think the role of local councils are if we have a Big Society?

The Prime Minister got the headlines yesterday for his ‘launch’ of the Big Society. Along with a lot of scepticism about what the Big Society actually means.

It is a concept that a lot of people are struggling to understand. And if you don’t understand something it must be wrong. Right? Plenty were there to criticise the “ConDems” (a joke surely as tired and as unfunny as New Liebore or Tony B-liar) for using the Big Society as a mask for cuts.

But at its heart it seems, to me, remarkably simple. It is an admission that the state just cannot do everything. For a start it’s just isn’t feasible for the government to carry on Labour’s spending, in 2009 they managed a deficit of £159.2 billion. Even allowing for reduced revenues and extra expenditure because of the recession it is clear that spending so much more than is coming in is totally unsustainable.

But there is a more fundamental issue: to what extent we should expect the state to provide for us? Yes, it should be a safety net and it should ensure that people have various minimum standards in their life. But should it intrude in every aspect of our lives? Or should it enable us to do as much as possible for ourselves and each other, and leave out the rest?

The fact is that the Big Society is already all around us. Last Sunday I went to The Big Lunch on Battersea High Street, an event put together by all the traders (everyone contributed except William Hill, who perhaps don’t feel part of the communities whose money they take). The council helped (or perhaps hindered) the organisation, but it was a prime example of a community, residents and businesses, coming together to do something special. And it was a fantastic day.

But it isn’t just high-profile events like that. A lady I have known for years has, during her retirement, given her time to a number of causes: she runs her Neighbourhood Watch, been a school governor and now volunteers as a reading assistant in her local school alongside various stints of volunteering she does for charities.

Near to me a chap runs a regular playgroup, charging a few pounds a session to pay for room rental, tea and biscuits he arrives in the morning and sets up with the help of the early parents and then at the end of the session clears up with the help of the late arriving parents.

We all know people who give something, whether it’s running a sports team or occasionally helping out a neighbour. They are the Big Society.

It isn’t pure altruism. I’m sure the businesses on Battersea High Street were pleased to have an extra 1,200 people passing through their street on a Sunday afternoon. And I’m sure that even my friend will admit that part of her motivation, as well as giving something back, is the warm fuzzy feeling that comes in return.

It isn’t an issue of getting people to do the ‘state’s job’ for free, it’s about questioning whether society is better off with people building and strengthening their own communities, or just relying on the state to do everything. And helping people get more by giving more to their communities.

In the words of the Conservative manifesto, there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.

Ages ago I commented on the uselessness of council surgeries. While I got a bit of criticism for it I stand by those comments.

Since then I still haven’t met anyone at a surgery. For most it clearly isn’t the preferred means of contacting a councillor.

I started thinking about this last night at the Shaftesbury Safer Neighbourhood Team meeting. While it was well attended there’s no getting away from the fact that any meeting of this nature only attracts a very small proportion of people.

But I can provide a catalogue of similar(ish) meetings that attract a tiny proportion of the potential audience. So for example, ward report backs, a public meeting held in each ward every other year or so tend to attract only a relatively small proportion of the population. The last one in Shaftesbury probably had 60-70 people along. Not bad, but from a population of over 10,000 not great either.

For another example, the Face the Public meeting I attended earlier this year was incredibly sparsely attended. You could round the attendence down to 0% of the 280,000 population of Wandsworth! And this is on the issue of crime, consistently one of the biggest residents concerns in any survey.

Following on from that we did a bit of work to find out why people didn’t come. The answer were interesting. Most people thought the venue convenient. They were happy with the date and time. They were interested in the topic. But they just didn’t come.

Now there is no reason why they should come, I’m not making any comment on the decisions people take on whether to attend or not attend a particular public meeting. Nor am I particularly saying that we shouldn’t have public meetings or surgeries. They do have a place.

And it isn’t to suggest that we should be moving online. While I can confidently say that I’ve had more people contact me through this blog in the past year than I have at surgeries in the past 12 years as a councillor (and the same is probably true for Twitter) I recognise that it is still viewed by a minority: too often people confused viewable by the whole world and viewed by the whole world.

In days gone by it didn’t matter so much because services were delivered by the state, or a local authority. They were run by paid officers and directed by politicians elected every four years or so. In between those elections the public, arguably, had very little say.

But if we really want a Big Society part of that is having an engaged population. I don’t know what the answer is; I don’t think a few thousand people reading a blog post necessarily has more weight than a few dozen at a public meeting. But hopefully the answer will be found so we aren’t creating a Big Society of just a few who turn up.