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Social networks and the connective tissue of a Big Society


It is interesting to see the UK Government’s Big Society initiative begin to take shape, and whilst success is far from guaranteed, there are aspects of this policy that are much needed in the current climate, coming after a period of public sector management that valued process over people and focused on inputs, not outcomes. But the proof will be in what this eventually means for all members of society, especially the most vulnerable, not just those who are already motivated to get involved with efforts to improve it.

Whilst the headlines are mostly about what people can do to take up the slack in civil society, and specifically volunteering in the traditional sense, I think there is another dimension to the Big Society that could be just as transformative for public service delivery over the long term, and that is the role that social networks can play, both in creating contexts for more sustainable solutions, and in supporting the distributed participation that can give people a role in delivering them. For example, if you consider the examples of social action that Clay Shirky cites in his book Cognitive Surplus, which points to the potential power of connected collaboration, they are mostly stories of network effects rather than traditional forms of collective action.

This requires an understanding of the role that social networks play in social problems as well as their potential solutions, but in practical terms it also requires changes within government and public sector agencies to enable distributed participation in the design and delivery of public services.

Moving beyond political canards

In the past, UK politics were dominated by two competing visions of the role of the state. One, on the left, saw state provision as the best way to ensure fairness and protect people form the vagaries of the market, and argued for increasing spending on public services. The other, on the right, saw state intervention as contrary to the liberty of its citizens and a poor substitute for market or community provision of services, arguing for a reduction in public spending and a rolling back of the state. The right made the case that statism, welfarism and entitlement thinking makes people less able or willing to look after themselves, and pointed to the disastrous consequences of socialist states that sought to appropriate morality and planning at the expense of individual liberty. The left, on the other hand, argued that the welfare state was a shining example of the achievements of social democracy in ensuring a minimum standard of living for all citizens, and pointed to historical examples of gross inequality and inhumane consequences resulting from markets and capital having unrestrained power.

Although the reflex still exists to evoke fear of these positions in political campaigning, neither pro- nor anti-state positions are meaningful in themselves. We have seen the devastating social problems that resulted from the idea that there is no such thing as society, under Thatcher, and under Blair and Brown we have learned that no amount of money can guarantee improvements in outcomes on complex issues like child poverty, education and health if we stick to simplistic notions of public service provision based on targets, top-down control and process-over-people methods.

We badly need new ideas and new approaches, especially since the gulf between rising demands on public services and available funding to meet them is growing ever wider. More than anything, we need approaches that go with the grain of human behaviour and motivation, and which understand that society is comprised of inter-related complex systems, rather than reductionist management control methods.

Co-design and participation

One idea that has gained currency in recent years is the notion of co-design and co-production applied to public services. As the PwC / IPPR paper ‘Capable Communities’ outlines, failing to involve people in the provision of services wastes their expertise and resourcefulness, fuels over-supply of services and ignores important but often intangible resources within the community that might help solve a problem. Whilst there have been some experiments with coproduction in health, personal budgets and local youth courts, these have been limited add-ons to an existing system, rather than indicative of an entirely new approach.

There are real barriers to co-delivery of services, such as the limits of community capacity, community fragmentation, a decline in political participation, problems of scale and so on. Plus, the public still believes that the state has primary responsibility for areas such as justice, health and education, and handing over real risks and real responsibility in addition to service delivery is a major challenge. The report suggests that perhaps ‘relational’ services have the greatest initial potential for this approach.

Making this work also requires new and important competencies, such as:

  • listening to find out what people really need, rather than looking for opportunities to push from the supply side
  • involving people in the decision making process, including methods such as participatory budgeting that seek to give people a say in how investment decisions are made
  • channeling and mobilising data to give people real-time feedback on how services are performing
  • helping people and providers understand the process of service design, not just as a one-off exercise, but an ongoing process of iterating, tweaking and improving services based on the feedback and outcomes of those who use them

If we give people an opportunity to influence the targeting and design of public services, we can ameliorate some of the worst features of the previous supply-focused mentality and improve the experience of individual service users. But to really grasp the potential for better, cheaper services, we need to understand how people work in groups and networks, and how this can influence their behaviour and needs. We need to understand the social network contexts in which we live, work and influence each other.

But, whilst this is a route to better individual experience of public services, we should think more broadly about the social contexts in which services are needed, delivered and experienced.

Social networks and public services

Earlier this year, Demos hosted an entertaining talk by Nicholas Christakis, co-author of ‘Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives’ and Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet. Christakis and his co-author James Fowler spent five years studying patterns of obesity from a social network perspective, and discovered that it appears to be contagious. His research suggests that if a first degree contact is obese, this increases your chances of becoming obese by 45%; but also if a second degree contact is obese (somebody you many not even know), then a significantly increased risk of obesity is also present. Only at a very distant five degrees of separation is there no statistical evidence of social network-borne influence on an individual’s lifestyle. Christakis’s work concluded that over half this increased risk was explained by induction – i.e. a domino effect among connected individuals – rather than homophily (obese people preferring similar company) or confounding (two or more people being influenced by the same external factor, rather than each other). Emotions, and in particular happiness, appear to be similarly contagious, as does altruistic behaviour of the ‘pay it forward’ kind – seeding a network with this behaviour seems to perpetuate altruism even in non-reciprocal settings.

One of Christakis’ starting points for this research was the oft-observed Widow Effect – a non-biological spread of mental illness that is statistically significant as an indicator of premature death among people who lose a long-term partner – and how this was not just limited to first degree connections (in most cases, a loved one), but was in fact evident among wider networks of friends. A similar effect seems to be visible in the spread of divorce within social networks, as reported recently by the media based on Christakis’s research. But, perhaps more interesting for public service delivery, as James Crabtree noted in his Prospect interview with Christakis, this idea echoes the findings of Geoff Mulgan’s ground-breaking report Sinking and swimming: understanding Britain’s unmet needs, which suggests that Britain is suffering a quiet epidemic of loneliness and this is having an adverse effect on health and happiness. This points to an obvious conclusion, though one that is rarely drawn in relation to solving social problems: the individual is not always the best unit of analysis, because many problems are caused (or made worse) by structural problems or reinforcement of negative behaviours within social networks.

If New Labour were in power, at this point they would reach for a shiny marketing / public health campaign that would seek to use social networks to transmit their message ‘virally’. This would be a bad idea. Christakis, who has clearly developed an appreciation of the inherent beauty and complexity of networks, points out social networks are not reducible to a collection of nodes and connections, but rather they appear to exhibit a degree of autonomy as organic entities. The way contagion spreads through social networks is very uneven and not easily predictable, because real human social networks are multi-centred, complex and with a high degree of structural variation. Networks are also resilient, and they evolve rapidly to deal with new circumstances. This suggests we should pause for thought before applying our limited understanding of how they work to manipulate them for our own ends. This does not mean we cannot design interventions that use these findings to improve public service delivery and better understand social problems, but these would be in the realm of influencing complex adaptive systems rather than traditional input-output management thinking.

At the Demos event, Richard Horton was more bullish about the possibility of harnessing social networks as part of social policy, which he sees as part of a third wave of evolution based on the science of cooperation. He mentioned the MMR debate in the UK, where two mutually exclusive networks of people with opposing ideas battled it out in public, arguing for and against the jab, which resulted in vaccination rates falling to dangerously low levels. In this case, he argued, could we not force a join between these networks to create a democratic space for debate in order to get to the truth? As evidence of this approach, he cited a project in the Palestinian territories, which aimed to forge links where few previously existed, in order to build resilience among communities sharing the same land, but not the same lives, and also the example of the Vancouver drug network, which is successfully transforming a risky network (drug users) into a positive network of user support and recovery.

By combining recent thinking on influence and behavioural economics with a deep understanding of the way social networks shape our behaviour and ideas, perhaps we can indeed seek to create virtuous circles where previously there were vicious circles or downward spirals of behaviour. Indeed, as Christakis pointed out, governments already study and intervene in networks to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, or run immunisation programmes. But the danger here is akin to the marketing industry’s attempts to create fake ‘viral’ videos or memes, or government attempts to replicate ‘best practice’ in contexts other than the one in which those practices developed. If only life were that simple.

Social networks as contexts, not vehicles, for policy

Instead of formulating policy, and then seeking to leverage social networks as a tool or a vehicle for policy, we should instead start at the other end of the chain and try to better understand the world, and the existing social networks, in which public services seek to intervene.

Participle are one organisation who use this approach to better understand some of the most intractable social problems, which existing pubic services are proving unable to solve. They deploy a very interesting mix of service design thinking, social network thinking and, as the New York Times recently highlighted in a piece about the group, a heavy dose of creativity.

One of Participle’s principals, Hillary Cottam, describes their purpose as reviving the spirit, if not the mechanisms, of the original Beveridge report that led to the creation of the welfare state:

To thrive and sustain themselves over time, these and other initiatives across Britain need a different framework in which to operate. Embedding change within communities takes time and cannot only be measured by economic indicators. It is all too easily strangled by expensive, bureaucratic frameworks – protection policies for example, that actively work against transparent, caring human inter-action. We need a culture that welcomes a broader set of ideas about problem solving – not a centralised, one solution fits all approach that we have seen over the last 20 years.

We are working with them as part of their LIFE project, where they have spent many months alongside some of the most challenged families in housing estates in Wiltshire to build up a picture of how people there perceive and interact with public services and authorities, and the impact these services are having on their lives. In this project, Charlie Leadbetter and Jennie Winhall describe a situation where a huge quantity of expensive interventions by the local authorities are preventing catastrophe for the most challenged families, but not resulting in much real progress, whilst many more families live on the edge of chaos, at risk of descending into chaos if a parent loses their job or some other external factor tips them over.

Whereas existing service provision is targeted at individual families, it is clear that there are also both positive and negative network effects at play within the wider social networks of the communities in question, which are in many cases acting against attempts to improve their situation. Participle are using these insights to develop programmes of socially-networked public services that take these factor into account and seek to utilise the networks that exist in such situations as vehicles for change. This could be as simple as better sharing of information about solutions to common problems, or as complex as trying to share and amplify positive influences and hope they spread. But at its core, this approach recognises that both social problems and potential solutions to them exist in the context of the social networks that surround us.

Elsewhere, as part of the Southwark Circle project, Participle have pioneered the use of real-world social networks among older people to give them better access to simple assistance that younger, more connected people take for granted, whilst at the same creating new opportunities for social interaction, friendships and meetups. Such simple, peer-to-peer services are not only cheaper than individually-provisioned services, but they also act at a more human level that helps prevent isolation and the problems that creates. A similar logic lies behind Ivo Gormley’s Good Gym project, which was a Social Innovation Camp winner last year.

What does this mean for the Big Society?

Public policy has gone about as far as it can go with process-driven, mechanistic methods. The most exciting new political and policy ideas are about smarter, simpler more social approaches to solving problems. In the United States, the Obama campaign led the way, showing a level of humanity and humility we have never seen in British politics, and although he faces huge challenges delivering on the promise of his campaign, the new administration has pioneered open data initiatives such as, and has brought in data visualisation expert Edward Tufte to help increase public understanding of the information generated by the economic recovery programme. We are starting to emulate this success here in the UK with our own open data initiative for government, but where we have an opportunity to lead is in defining the next generation of public services.

Before the election, Prime Minister David Cameron’s team launched the Post-Bureaucratic Age initiative, which is about coming up with ideas that help shift control back into peoples’ hands and find modern, new ways of delivering public services. As James Crabtree points out in a Wired article about the Conservative Party’s web team, team Cameron has clearly been looking to both Washington and Silicon Valley for inspiration, and many people are surprised at just how radical they seem in seeking to modernise the state, although others are sceptical that this could become just a cover for spending cuts.

This has given a real boost to long-standing open data efforts within the open government community in the UK, and policies such as publishing every government contract over £25,000 in order to create a culture of transparency and value for money are a real departure from previous practice. Over the past few years, It has been frustrating to witness the struggle that open data advocates and internet-savvy civil servants have faced just in order to progress basic initiatives such as, whilst at the same time seeing how much money continues to be wasted with the bland, generic corporations who run so many of the government’s incompetent outsourcing contracts or large-scale IT project failures. We have a wealth of talent in the UK social technology scene, with many people who care passionately about public services and social innovation, and they are the ones who should be helping create a new fabric of service delivery in government.

But as the excellent Centre for Technology Research report about Open Government points out, this challenge extends far beyond just opening up data and hoping enough people can do something with it. It is also about a major shift in the culture and practice of government. Since the launch of the Big Society initiative (“There is such a thing as society, but it is not the same as the state”), most coverage has focused on the idea of people volunteering to boost civic participation and solve problems that the state was previously responsible for – a good example being BBC Newsnight’s mocking report about a journalist volunteering to clean a roundabout. But the more important question is what government needs to do in order to enable people to play a greater role in society and the delivery of public services. It is not so much about walking away from whole areas of public service delivery, which is unlikely to happen given the political culture of the UK, but reforming and in some cases re-inventing them to utilise the energy, expertise and social networks of the wider population to solve problems differently. A good example is healthcare. The uber-bureaucratic sausage machine referral system of the NHS is too wasteful and disempowers patients in often quite dangerous ways, based on the idea that the doctor is an unquestionable expert, even though in reality he or she may know very little about a referred patient. But that doesn’t mean the Big Society wants to see this replaced by self-organising volunteer witch doctors who meet on the village green every Friday. There is plenty of room in the middle for a combination of self-help, peer-to-peer advice and support, and expert-led but participative treatment design that uses the time and energy of patients and their families (freely given) to replace some of the money we need to save.

There is, of course, a huge role for innovative thinking about how best to leverage people power to meet this challenge, and how to design interfaces (in the widest sense of the term) within government and public services to make it work. Without doubt, one of the biggest problems to solve is procurement and the disbursement of funds. Government budgets should be managed with more of an investment mentality, rather than a get-the-money-out-of-the-door mentality, and instead of spending it all in one go on promises of delivery against a plan, there should be room for agile, iterative approaches that allow a degree of experimentation and then build on proven success. Innovation might come from the kind of imagined archetypal voluntary groups that many people think of when they hear the phrase Big Society, but equally it might come from small companies, social enterprises or indeed loosely connected social networks who share a common interest. As Clay Shirky writes in Cognitive Surplus, we have ignored for too long the power of intrinsic motivation that governs much of our behaviour, and in some quite unusual and unexpected situations, people will stand up to fix a problem together or to campaign for change. The basic format of volunteering for a charity is unsustainable for most people because of time pressures or other reasons, but if we think more about distributed co-operation and other forms of participation, including online ‘volunteering’ (much like Wikipedia editing or forum moderation) then we can start to see a whole new set of ways in which this idea might be realised.

So far, new thinking about the role of social networks in both analysing problems and finding creative, sustainable solutions has been somewhat missing from the Big Society debate. Healthy social networks are in many ways the connective tissue of a Big Society, and encouraging their development around issues of civic importance are a key part of the process of weaning people off a dependent relationship on the state and enabling them to help each other. Groups like Participle are still exploring this new field, but if they succeed, the potential savings are substantial and the potential outcomes much more beneficial to those they are trying to help. But this is only one approach, and there are many ways in which we can apply social network thinking to improving public service delivery and effectiveness.

Looking to the future

So, what might the new, socially-networked public services look like? Well to start with, I think there are some basic characteristics we should expect to see, but this is a new area and we have a lot to learn:

  • Innovative, iterative delivery. Not bureaucratic quangos, nor generic outsourcing companies. Start small, invest in success or fail quickly and cheaply. Adopt an exile approach to service delivery that takes into account user experience and feedback. Devolve to people and organisations closest to the ground, where possible.
  • Open by default. Using transparency to change behaviour and data to create feedback loops that can improve services. Understanding incentives and behavioural economics
  • Demand, not supply-driven, using listening and engagement techniques to surface real needs
  • Seek to create network effects by aggregating lots of small, individual actions that people are already motivated to perform, rather than ask people to work for the general common good. Understanding and tapping into motivation and incentives is important.
  • Understanding people as inter-dependent within social networks, not just as isolated individuals, and taking this into account when developing services
  • Services built around people using co-design techniques
  • Allow public sector workers the space to be human, to use their experience and their know-how, rather than work in a culture of bureaucracy and self-protection.

We are already working on the task of helping transform public services using social network thinking, but navigating the arcane and often nonsensical world of public sector procurement remains a barrier to us having greater impact. Until that changes, even after cuts, huge sums of money will still be spent on government IT projects and public service outsourcing, and yet only a tiny fraction of that will be made available to real innovators like Participle, MySociety and others in the field, despite the fact they can produce much greater value than the usual suspects that have co-evolved (to put it politely) with bureaucratic government processes. Let’s hope that changes within the next four years.

The intersection of social networks, organisational design and public service delivery is a fascinating area to be working in right now, and I sincerely hope new thinking and creative practice can bring real-world improvement to peoples’ lives whilst helping us find our way towards a post-Twentieth Century solution to the relationship between individuals, communities and the state. We would love to learn more, so if you are working in this area, please let us know.

8 Responses to Social networks and the connective tissue of a Big Society

  1. By Eliot on July 20, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Hi Lee – nicely put.
    I’m already bored rigid by the lines of argument which state “you really think volunteers can run the NHS” which frankly is an absurd characterisation of the idea. There has been so much media focus on “classic volunteering” with things like the embarrassing Newsnight skits that its role has been overblown.
    The fantastic thing about Southark Circle is that the model is both sustainable and offers a living wage to the supposed “volunteers” if they so wish. (Worth noting, this is after the initial set up funding it received).
    So, forever referencing Participle aside. What I’ve found difficult is persuading naturally left-leaning folk to this approach. So, two questions:
    1) Do we (whoever we are) need to put the Big Society across in much shorter, snappier, more consumable forms? If so how do we express the idea more simply without compromising what we are trying to say?
    2) What’s the danger that once these models scale, the service delivery responsibility becomes terrifying and these “social enterprises” become a lot more “enterprisey”. Is there a danger of creating profit driven privitisation of public services by another name?
    Finally – as ever – im question everything i just wrote.
    Is any of this stuff important at all (the getting people on board, the intellectual chatter that has exploded over the last week, etc…)?. Shouldn’t those who are running these projects just get on and do it. Win the debate by delivering better results, or fail by not?

  2. By Jeff Mowatt on July 20, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Lee, in the context of social capitalism you”l find a case being made for the role of information in our founding paper, where the social purpose business model was concieved.
    “By going with the normal flow of free-market enterprise and the emerging replacement of monetary capital with intellectual capital as the dominant form of basic enterprise capitalization, it becomes easier to set up new companies primarily on the basis of invested intellectual capital. (See Post-Capitalist Society, by Peter Drucker). In plain English, socially responsible and forward-thinking companies can be set up quickly and cheaply–and these companies have indefinite potential for earnings and localized, targeted economic development. The initial objective is to develop model enterprises and communities, then implement successful strategies from those models into surrounding communities regionwide or nationwide, as needed. ”

  3. By Richard on July 20, 2010 at 11:05 pm

    Great post, one of the most interesting things I’ve read in a while.
    For more on a similar subject, it might be worth looking up some of the Total Place evaluation reports, as those pilot schemes are often about embodying some of the main principles you mentioned in terms of public involvement in service delivery (although not so much service design, which is a bit of an oversight).
    As a sign of how much change is needed in this area, one of the evaluation reports included a quote from a council worker who had been encouraged to go out and talk to parents about their needs. The employee was shocked to find that this was a good way of finding out what parents might want.
    Have written a few posts of my own about Total Place and these issues over here.

  4. By Theodore Taptiklis on July 21, 2010 at 2:43 am

    I like your thoughtful piece. I think the ‘competencies’ that you list are important ones. What they point to for me is the need not just for more communication, but for a higher quality of exchange. For these ideas to work, we need conversations that do more than circulate ideas and opinions, but also help us to recognise each other, make sense of things together, and make the most of each other’s particular skills and experiences.
    This is my dream for the future of social networking: something that is not only ubiquitous, timely, and focused on shared interests and concerns, but also draws us towards more productive working relationships with each other. Co-design of public services is a great place to start with this. I have been working to facilitate these kinds of practical conversations across large public sector arenas, and I have imagined synergy between these efforts and yours in social networking. Maybe you could look at to see what sparks your interest there.
    Best wishes,
    Theodore Taptiklis

  5. By Marty Carroll on July 21, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    An excellent post. You covered a lot of ground but I particularly like your ‘open by default’ concept. Let’s hope some in government are listening. Thanks also for the pointers to the other reports.

  6. By Ben Gilchrist on July 23, 2010 at 11:25 am

    Thanks Lee, a very interesting article. It was frustratingly tantalising as well because I kept wanting to know more.
    What do your suggestions actually look like?
    Could you link some of the characteristics you mention at the end with the case studies mentioned earlier?
    A lot of this sounds like participatory development approaches but I haven’t seen people link this with online social networks.
    We would love to build such experience on ours in Tameside.
    Also I think Eliot’s questions and Richard’s comment are important. Any chance of a follow up article?
    All the best,

  7. By David Meiselman on July 23, 2010 at 5:49 pm

    Great article as always Lee.
    I can’t help wonder whether we will start to see uptake on these ideas at a municipal level in the United States that will help to drive their adoption at higher levels (States, National) as the use cases show value in these “test-beds”.
    The town I live in, like many in New England, uses a Town Meeting form of government, where all important budget issues, etc. are voted on by town residents. Many people in the town do not engage prior to this annual meeting when items are discussed at a committee level for months. I have long thought that some distributed form of engagement via social computing might let busy people (lots of Type A power people live in town) get more involved earlier in the process. Once this happens, I would be surprised if there weren’t a natural evolution to more bottom up initiatives and things like “service recipients” driving the orchestration of the town’s “service provision.”
    Much like there is often a question in enterprise deployment of required scale for a network effect, do you think municipalities will need a certain scale for the participants to be a large enough group?
    Thanks again for provoking some interesting thoughts.

  8. By Lee Bryant on July 26, 2010 at 2:55 am

    Thanks for the very useful comments. I am amazed by how well-informed and relevant your feedback has been.
    Eliot: these are good questions, but your second question is more important – at least it is a problem we have time to address. I don’t really know exactly what the Big Society thing is all about, but defining and delineating it matter less than giving it a go, I think. But, yes, I agree, it is ultimately about what can be achieved, rather than the theory.
    Jeff: That’s interesting work you are doing. My only concern with the approach of treating intellectual capital like financial capital is that this can tend to value the explicit more than the implicit, which can distort the way we think about and encourage knowledge flows. But that’s just an issue of measurement – your social business purpose is valuable nonetheless.
    Richard: Yes, good point. Participle certainly talk about the Total Place pilots as something to learn from, and I will read your posts on the topic. Very relevant to this discussion, for sure.
    Theodore: Thanks. I like your practical trust concept, and thanks for the link to the site, which has given me useful context for the earlier piece you sent me.
    Ben: Thanks – I agree it has something in common with participatory development, but I think it goes wider than that too. It was something of a thought piece – in fact, I had it in draft for a few months – but I will try to find time to manifest the ideas in more concrete suggestions at some point. If you want to chat specifically about trying out any of this WRT your work in Tameside then let me know. T3SC looks pretty smart.
    David: Hi there 🙂 The network effect question is a very good one when considering ideas like these. I really don’t know the answer, but I suspect it is an important factor in determining which initiatives take off and which don’t. Your use case is certainly one I had in mind, and (rather sadly) it is easier to make this work with the already-highly-empowered than the disempowered, but no less valuable from a democratic, efficiency or an experimental POV.