It might not be the most popular thing to say, but I can see Cameron’s Big Society working (especially due to the coalition instead of a one party government) and I think it’s a step into the right direction. It’s a step towards a real world 2.0 – engagement, crowd sourcing, user generated content – you name it.
We all talk about communities, about brands being defined by the people and for the people, about the individual being at the heart of everything, with all the rights and responsibilities that come with it and here’s a politician that actually does that on the big stage. If Britain would be Facebook, we’d applaud it, if it would be Google we’d be in awe and if it would be Twitter or Foursquare we’d praise it to the heavens. Cameron & co need to work on the messaging and communication positioning for their concept, bringing it down to earth, being more precise, showing the real life benefits.
I said it before and say it again: Marketing practitioners in the present can learn a lot from nation builders and politicians – and it’s about time that politicians behave like politicians (and I use this word in a positive context) and stop using the corporate communication and marketing methods to sell us stuff, cling to power and be all controlling. Politicians can learn a lot from corporate brand building and marketing, but let’s hope they keep remembering that they are here to lead a nation, build a nation on liberal values and with the freedom of the individual as the highest good.
When I first read about the Big Society it reminded me of a piece I wrote for my article Brand England, which was published in the academic journal “Place branding and public diplomacy” and which I refined later for my MSc dissertation: It’s all about how branding can revive democracy. When you read it, keep the Big Society concept in the back of your mind:
Branding to revive democracy
In the postmodern state the national identity is an important driver for increased active participation in democracy, especially on a community and local level, as people will feel pride and want to maintain and grow the brand that they belong to.
In our global, interconnected world, the importance of a responsible community will continuously grow, influencing people’s behaviour from a pure demand driven one to a cooperative culture. This will be especially true the more the state and the government reduce centralisation and remove “red tape” from business processes. The reduction of central power is necessary for social cohesion and integration in a pluralistic society with members on different stages of the hierarchy of developments.
In the postmodern democratic state built on increased liberalism the vacuum that was created through increased privatization of state run organizations and through the reduction of state involvement from social duties was not filled by civic action. Instead a new culture of consumerism replaced responsible and active citizenship: Citizens adopted the attitudes of consumers in all areas, encouraged by the media, accepted and fuelled by politicians and the political system of adversary (Russell, 2005), which is still more suited for a mainly authority seeking loyalist society and as long as parties on both sides take this dualistic stance of left versus right, this will be hard to overcome. This is mirrored in proportional representational systems, in which the opposition party often just rejects any policy suggestions, and only the emergency of either a grand majority or a grand coalition overcomes this currently, as can be seen in Germany when comparing the current government to its predecessor.
Consumer-citizens want instant gratification and instant fulfillment of their wishes and single issues; they do not perceive a difference between a political and an economic leadership and take little notice of the scarce resources a government needs to balance between all the differing interests in a pluralist and multicultural society (Russell, 2005).
The consumer-citizen (supported and often led by media, political parties and political system) tends to engage in “negative activism of blame and complaint, where the main aim of political controversy is to see politicians called to account, their heads placed on blocks, and their public and private integrity held up to intimate scrutiny” (Crouch, 2000, p.8).
To unfold and utilize the full potential of a democracy, citizens need to actively participate on an on-going basis in a positive way. This positive citizenship is defined “where groups and organizations of people together develop collective identities, and autonomously formulate demands based on them, which they pass on to the system” (Crouch, 2000, p.8). The ideal of democracy asks for participation of citizens; free elections are one part of the ideal of democracy but free elections do not equal democracy. If this participation is replaced by apathy, it is then likely that decisions in this post-democratic time are made only by an elite with economical interests (Crouch, 2000).
This balance of democracy and liberalism is only productive if a state minimizes intervention and citizens are actively participating in democracy and therefore accepting their duties. To ensure this, a strong sense of community and therefore a national identity has to be forged.
At the same time a strong sense of community will not only ensure the active participation of its citizens but also overcome the insecurities that lead to an insular worldviews, hostilities to the European Union and to immigrants as such. The national brand identity can minimize the impact of racist and exclusive organizations and create and “alternative identity that is diverse, outward-looking and inclusive.” (Bragg, 2004)
As people are representatives of a country, a strong national identity, a strong link to its community and a strong feeling of ownership of the nation brand can potentially influence behavior, as seen in corporations. In a democratic state and at our current level of development this can only be achieved with the soft power of attraction. In an increasingly connected world the importance of institutions in the public diplomacy process will diminish while the importance of citizens as diplomats and key influencers will increase.
So, have I promised too much? The Big Society Concept, depending on how it’s interpreted and how it’s executed, can make this nation into a real web 2.0 nation of increased focus and importance on the individual citizen – for me that can only be a positive outcome.
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