Nat Wei, the Government’s Big Society advisor, has an interesting blog which often highlights good Big Society examples. It now appears he’s rating them as well and recently introduced his ‘power rating’ (and thanks to Warren Hatter for highlighting it) which “seeks to express the increasing degree in which a platform or initiative takes power from those who currently possess it and puts it in the hands of citizens” giving it five ratings:

  1. does something good for citizens,
  2. shifts power, data, and opportunities closer to where citizens live, perhaps by reducing bureaucracy, enabling different providers to operate services, or using the web and other means to allow more direct access,
  3. seeks to harness cognitive surplus, presenting tasks and activities in more accessible ways by changing the way we think about them to appeal to our interests and passions,
  4. strengthens social capital (particularly the bridging kind) by encouraging peer to peer activity online and offline,
  5. finds ways to open its governance, funding, and surplus involving employees, members, and users using cooperative or other methods to create a strong sense of group ownership over the venture

Now, the language is not the best, even as someone who rather likes Clay Shirky’s concept of ‘cognitive surplus’ I cannot imagine any circumstance in which I would attempt to use the phrase. But the principle is an interesting one.

I’ve recently been talking to a friend about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and it was impossible to see this and not make a connection.

Despite some critics, the principle of Maslow is common-sense. Some needs take priority over others: you need air to breath and food to eat. Once you have them you can start thinking about shelter and security. Then onto more fulfilling needs like friends, family and self-development. Even blogging, if that’s a need…

But when you tie that back to government, it’s rooted firmly at the bottom. We’ve all heard variations of “the first duty of government is…” Most often it involves protection or security.

To a degree that has to be right. For example, as a council we have certain statutory duties. We need to protect the vulnerable. We have to provide housing for those that cannot get it themselves. We have to provide education. Perhaps, though, we need to think more about how we help people with those less existential needs.

One of the criteria of the Wandsworth Challenge is that it should improve the quality of life of our residents. I’ve touched on the problem with this before, that people all have different opinions, and what enhances one persons quality of life might diminish another’s. We could plough lots of money into, say, a Wandsworth Opera Company, but that would offer little direct benefit to those who don’t like opera.

A Maslow for government, therefore, should address those crucial needs (care, education, housing) but then act as an enabler. Nat Wei may be on to something – and while the wording needs work – it really needs to a test before decisions are taken, not a rating afterwards.

I am excited to see the Wandsworth Challenge finally launch a public face this week. I know that some might be sceptical, even cynical, about it; but I’m not one of them.

I’m excited in large part because it marks a new way of working for the council. Wandsworth has been remarkably successful at running a strongly managed council over the years, but as times – and people – change so must the council. They may be fads to some, but the latest thinking on things like nudge, the impact of our social network, or collective wisdom can only add to the strong foundation of effective management and financial control.

I’m also excited because there has been some interest expressed already. It may be that I’m more aware of it but I don’t recall any other time while I’ve been on the council that I’ve had such extensive conversations with people about how the council works.

And part of my excitement is because I believe in the Big Society. Let’s be clear, Wandsworth Challenge is not the Big Society, but there are considerable overlaps and you it’s possible to consider one a subset of the other (or as two parallel policies). That we have launched a Big Society fund adds to the potential for small projects to take off.

But if anything troubles me it is the what the public response will be. Will it consist mainly of accusatory suggestions (sack Town Hall fat cats?), or ideas that are entirely outside of our remit (bring back hanging, or at least hard labour), or will it be the worst of all: a deafening silence (because people are so used to the public sector doing everything, they do not see any value in contributing).

One of the key success criteria will be the amount of workable ideas that come from frontline staff and the public. I’ve spent time today hopefully encouraging one of the teams in my portfolio to throw themselves into the Challenge. And something I’ve given a lot of thought too (and had a lot of good advice from others, but still not fully reconciled) is how we make the process transparent; there can’t be anything worse than seeing your idea disappear into a black hole never to return.

But there must be hundreds, thousands of good ideas out there. Some may be radical, some might be simple. Some impossible to implement and some done in a day. But every single one of us has been in the situation of dealing with a public service and thinking “this would be so much better if only…”

So what are your experiences? Is there a small tweak or a radical overhaul would make your dealings with the council better?

I have been a rubbish blogger recently. In my defence the dream of mainly working from (a small) home hasn’t been so dreamlike since the birth of our second child! The result has been that a lot has had to suffer, including this blog. I want to, and will, keep it going, but why? What motivates me? It takes time, generates no income and – while undoubtedly a good thing for someone who’s elected to do – is not essential and I’m first to admit is ignored by far more Wandsworth residents than read it!

I came across this video from the RSA the other day, and was struck by the relevance of it to, well, pretty much anything but particularly the Big Society and Wandsworth Challenge, so it wasn’t that surprising a day later when I read about exactly the same research in Jesse Norman’s book Big Society!

The crux of it is that money is not the motivator it is often thought to be. Once comfortable, other things drive us more (one of the examples used is why on earth anyone would want to play a musical instrument as a hobby, since it brings no income only cost). The research suggests that these are:

  1. Autonomy: The freedom to do things without direction or compulsion
  2. Mastery: The ability to gain proficiency in an activity
  3. Purpose: A reason, a calling, for doing something

All of these are available from the Big Society and the Wandsworth Challenge. People will have the freedom (autonomy) to run services or schemes that benefit their neighbourhoods (purpose) and, of course, the right to run them as well as they can (mastery).

It’s a classic example that there’s more to life than money, and as most people forced to play a musical instrument as a child will testify, it’s a lot more enjoyable when compulsion is replaced with voluntary desire.

“The council doesn’t have all the answers” was one of the closing comments by the council’s deputy leader, Maurice Heaster, during a debate on the Wandsworth Challenge last week. I would hope, to most, that this is fairly self-evident, but sometimes you wonder. You wonder first because there is a tendency for government (of whatever level and whatever form) to act like it does have all the answers. And then you wonder because there’s so often the presumption stated that the government – or council – should ‘do something’.

One of the things that has amused me over the recent protests against cuts is how often you hear “tee hee, I bet this isn’t what David Cameron had in mind for the Big Society!” It amuses me because, actually, I think it probably is what he had in mind. He might not have specifically envisaged people super-gluing themselves to the windows of Top Man (because, apparently, Philip Green should be sloppier about running a business and pay more overheads) or setting fire to the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree, but he did want to see an engaged population that were active, not passive, clients of the state.

And, for me, that’s what the Wandsworth Challenge is about. It’s inviting everyone to be engaged. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I, or the council, will like all the ideas. And it doesn’t mean that the council will implement each one. But the council will have to justify its decision.

That’s where my real interest lies, in the interplay between community empowerment and politics. It’s certainly true that power needs redistributing from Whitehall down to the town hall and from there to the ordinary citizen. But that’s not to say that the town hall doesn’t still have a role to play where it is best placed to deliver a service or a strategy. This is something that could re-democratise local government and local politics, giving everyone a role to play (as big or small as they like) and engaging them in the process. Everyone is better – community, council and government – when each is playing a full role and challenging the other to be responsive and do the same.

You don’t have to look far in the Wandsworth Challenge to see the small and large ‘p’ politics. The three tests themselves are politically loaded, despite seeming fairly innocuous:

  1. Does it help achieve a distinctively high quality of life for our residents?
  2. Does it make the most of the resources available from all areas?
  3. Does it enable individuals to take more responsibility for their own lives?

The first two are, certainly, a matter of opinion. For example, we could make Battersea Park into allotments, for some that would pass all three tests – with people enjoying the great outdoors (test one), using open space for food production (test two) and help increase self-sufficiency (test three). But what about those who value the park for sport and recreation? Those allotments would fail the first two, and possibly even the third if they were, for some reason, unable to use an alternative.

So, if faced with competing suggestions about the use of Battersea Park (implying there are different views and priorities out there) the council itself will have to show prioritisation – I suspect in this case we might favour, and therefore give a higher value to, the leisure use than the food use.

And the Wandsworth Challenge is, like the Big Society, something that harnesses the power of the nebulous. It’s back to the Patton quote I’ve mentioned before: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” By not defining it too tightly we give free rein to ideas and innovation, and with a population of 280,000 people, there have to be some great ideas out there.

So, what are your ideas? What do you want to see? What don’t you want to see? How should we capture them? Or are you just not enthused?