The big society – meeting at Downing Street

Update 20 May:  I finally got around to scanning in the piece of paper with the seating plan given to me before entering the room.  The angle from which pictures were taken meant that some folk were not visible.  There has been some interest in the attendee list which hasn’t made it out yet – i should imagine that cabinet office are simply ridiculously busy – so i hope this helps.

Today the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister kicked off the big society work with a seminar in No10 around the cabinet table.  I was privileged to be there with fellow hyperlocal web person Ally Tibbit of Greener Leith and web campaigner Martha Lane Fox.  There were a host of luminaries from the community activism sector about 20 in all . I’ll follow up with the some detail later, but this is an impressionistic write up shortly after the event (mainly written in the back of a taxi picking up a new cat from Battersea).

For me, as an old Whitehall hand (my day job before talk about local) this was the first time the coalition thing has really sunk in.  It was remarkable to see two leaders of different political parties sit opposite each other at the cabinet table and govern together.  The big society is perhaps easier common ground, the deputy prime minister said that the liberals and the conservatives had been talking about the same thing but with different labels.  For the DPM a big society that embraced community grass roots action and self empowerment was core liberalism.  The Prime Minister said that he wanted a major part of his legacy to be a government that ‘laid the foundations for the big society’.
The PM and DPM were in listening mode and responded positively to the attendees.  I made points about how the web can help people be more effective and active citizens by bringing engagement into the modern age from the C19th, the importance of open data to transparency and accountability and the importance of Martha’s work on digital participation.

The last couple of months, all the big society chatter in the civic society and volunteering sectors has been ‘do they really mean it?’. Nat Wei has been highly effective in the background convincing people one on one.

In the theatre of Whitehall, symbolism is important.  You don’t get a much more symbolic commitment than your issue being the first joint outing on policy issue by the new prime minister and deputy prime minister.  So today was a strong symbolic ‘yes’.  As ever with any government, especially a new one you need to be vigilant and hold them to their word and i shall do my share of that.

Martha Lane Fox has already tweeted that ‘I am putting aside all cynicism’. I believe that a massive increase in civic activism and engagement would have a profound impact on making Britain a better place.  It’s great to see such committed government leadership on the big society and i am happy to play my part.

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William Perrin

Founder of Talk About Local, Trustee of the Indigo Trust, member of UK Government transparency panels, former Policy Advisor to UK Prime Minister, former Cabinet Office senior civil servant.Open data do-er, Kings Cross London blogger. Loves countryside. Two kids, not enough sleep.
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