It is, admittedly, early days but opinion is divided as to whether David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is a genuine commitment to citizenship and civic responsibility or a clever ideological play to dramatically reduce the size of the state, delivering a Grantham fist within a Notting Hill glove.

There is a certainly an overture of hope in the Cameron vision: that Britain will return to an imaginary golden age, a heady mix of Victorian paternalism and ‘50s nostalgia. It’s an appeal to the Cadburys, Quakers and Florence Nightingales within us all; a twenty-first century Anglicisation of the twentieth-century American dream. No matter that the infrastructure of our nation remains fractured, if not broken; that neither the resources, nor the people, nor, sadly, the will, currently exists to pick up the slack created by the shift from state to society. A new mutualism may well be needed, but it is not yet existent, let alone sufficiently robust to shoulder the burden that will inevitably follow.

Yet, even if Britain is not structurally fit for Big Society’s purposes in health, education and welfare, we should at least recognise the refreshed and dynamic power of the citizen within. This is the citizen on whom the Government has pinned its hopes: a citizen who may well bite back in new and unexpected ways. It’s for this reason that understanding the art, or the science, of conversation is now more important than ever before.

Just as politicians are meant to campaign in poetry but govern in prose, so a distinctly analogue 2010 General Election campaign delivered the Government into a properly digital world. The UK media and conversational landscape in which the Coalition now finds itself is one in which part of the societal shift from state institution to liberated citizen has already occurred. What’s more, it’s a shift that will now only accelerate in line with the penetration of mobile phones and faster broadband.

We are all actionists and activists now – even though
we may not recognise it fully.

As citizens, we may not yet be ready to become either part-time carers or welfare-to-work gardeners, but we are happy both to have a voice and to share it, loudly, through our social networks and in the media. We are all actionists and activists now – even though we may not recognise it fully. Indeed, although the Government seems to know that things are heading this way, and businesses, brands and the media are already learning and embracing the new reality, we citizens, Potteresque, have still to discover the power of the magic within.

It is in the conversational interplay between the three formerly great institutions of media, politics and business that our big society is at once both most transformative and most fragile. The ‘actionist’ and ‘activist’ labels are not to be treated lightly. Transparency is the default setting of the post-Internet age and the new accountability that this brings is real, not perceived.

There has been a fundamental shift in the balance of power away from these institutions and towards the people. This shift, in turn, continues to drive behavioural change in the workplace; through the supply chain; at the till point and, in time, at the ballot box, too. The means of access has opened up to ensure that ‘they’ are no longer in control within this new, more level democracy. It is driving a deep and permanent change in the relationships between government, businesses, brands, the media, and us, the people, too.They live in our world now; rather than we in theirs, and the conversation takes place on our terms. This re-calibration is real and exciting.

Shared interests can now collide and coalesce. New governments and unlikely alliances are formed on this basis, while, at a corporate level, we have witnessed the opening of an entirely new category – owned media – as companies both recognise the new equality and realise their own ability to publish and converse through channels like Facebook or Your Tube. The media isn’t always needed, while citizen-consumers can always talk back. Thumbs-up and thumbs-down symbols are easy metaphors for what we like and dislike about the world around us. The trick is to avoid X-Factor-ising everything; to distinguish between the vital and the mundane; the poetry and the prose.

Any institution that ignores this fundamental shift in the nature of power and conversation does so at its peril. This applies not only to government, but also to every business or brand, any employee or institution. The Big Society of Opinion is out there and it moves at lightning speed. Those in authority might be asking what it is that we can do for them, but we, perhaps, should be asking something too: not what they can do for us, but what it is that we should be doing together. This is what we mean by co-creation: a new mutualism and a more level democracy.

In conversation terms, therefore, The Big Society should be an open one, between genuine equals. Within this, an authentic balance of power can emerge, not just one of grandiose hope and false expectation, dictated by the few on high unto the many below. Government, businesses and brands can embrace the wisdom and insights of the citizen crowd. They will enjoy deeper insights and a more powerful mandate for doing so. The conversation is there for the making, and from this conversation a more real, resilient and deliverable Big Society will most likely result.

This post was originally published as part of Edelman’s third Public Engagement essay series, available from Edelman Editions.

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