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Community spirit

Social capital and Big Local

By Sonia Bussu, research and learning co-ordinator, Local Trust

What is social capital?

‘Social capital’ has been a buzz word for years in policy circles, but it can be hard to define. It’s generally understood as a measure of neighbourhood trust, safety and civic engagement. It can also be described as the linkages between people that can help them achieve individual and collective goals. This means that social capital is crucial to strengthening collective action for social change.

Research has found three types of social capital:

  • Bonding networks – relationships within homogeneous groups, including family and
  • Bridging networks – relationships between heterogeneous groups, such as volunteer
    organisations and community groups.
  • Linking social capital – people’s connections and social relations with those in authority.
    For instance, some grassroots and voluntary organisations who have strong
    linking networks can act as advocates and provide an effective bridge between
    communities and institutions.

How can we measure social capital?

Social capital is not only hard to define, it is also hard to measure. There are many factors at play and many variables we need to control for.

For example, not all social capital is good. Bonding ties can provide communities and individuals with a sense of identity and belonging, but they can also lead to the pursuit of narrow self-interests. A high level of ‘bonding’ social capital can undermine crosscutting networking and create ethnic, religious, social or other divisions.

It’s important to find helpful indicators
of good social capital, without assuming that it’s a cure for all ills.

I’ve been taking on this challenge in exploring how Big Local generates social capital.

Social capital and Big Local

Big Local’s outcomes focus on encouraging community building and social cohesion around tangible goals and activities. Residents choose how to invest £1m over ten years and are directly in charge of the implementation of their plans, with light touch, yet consistent support
from Local Trust and its partners. Big Local’s objectives focus on intangible qualities such as increases in social cohesion, trust and networking; greater community capacity; and growing individual confidence. The scope for Big Local to create new social capital, particularly of the ‘bridging’ and ‘linking’ type, is high.

The programme is about a third of the way through its timeline, so it’s still early days. As a first step in monitoring how Big Local is creating social capital, I have identified four main indicators of ‘bonding’ and’ bridging’ social capital that most clearly link to Big Local’s outcomes:

  • higher levels of local engagement
  • greater networking among groups and associations
  • increased local capacity
  • increased confidence and gain of new skills.

For the four indicators, which are also those we use in our evaluation plan, I reviewed all the research published to date on Big Local. On ‘linking’ social capital we have very limited findings as yet. This is certainly an aspect where we’ll be carrying out in-depth research in the future, as we look into how Big Local areas work and interact with councils and other local institutions, from CCGs to schools.

In brief, these are the main findings and key lessons so far:

  • There is evidence that Big Local is increasingly led by residents.
  • New networks are being created, with shared leadership helping delivery.
  • Getting the wider community involved has been one of the greatest challenges. Big Local areas have been creative in reaching out to the wider community, but many partnerships remain reliant on small numbers.
  • Many of those most actively involved in Big Local have gained confidence and learnt new skills. Support may be needed to encourage new people to join partnerships and build their confidence, enabling ‘gatekeepers’ to welcome new active residents.
  • Open events proved to be a very effective way of involving people, particularly for recruiting people who are new to volunteering in their community.
  • Speaking to people face-to-face and offering micro-volunteering and small tasks have helped areas to increase participation beyond the ‘dedicated few’.
  • Big Local areas want to feel they are not alone in their journey; shared learning and promotion of Big Local as a national programme may help with this.
  • Greater clarity around monitoring requirements can also help areas understand the programme better and feel more confident in promoting it and engaging more people.

You can read the full report here. 

Let us know what you feel about the report and if your experience of Big Local reflects these findings or feels very different. As we continue to monitor the progress of Big Local with the help of local communities and our research partners, new learning will highlight both the strengths of the programme and how it can be improved.