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Measuring the big society: the challenge for social research

Posted on 04 July 2011 .
Tags: Big Society, Evaluation of National Citizen Service, NCS, research design

In my last blog I focused on how social research knowledge can contribute to the debate about what the Big Society is and how it can be brought to life. But there’s an even bigger challenge for social research in all of this: it remains to be seen whether any of this will work.

Given its flexible definition and organic nature, how do we measure whether the Big Society exists and whether it’s working? How do we measure the strong communities and strong relationships that David Cameron is referring to? This is exactly what we're aiming to do, alongside colleagues at the Office for Public Management, New Philanthropy Capital and Frontier Economics, through the Evaluation of National Citizen Service. I'll be discussing this project and how we're working through some of these issues at the SRA's summer event tomorrow.

NCS is a flagship policy for the Big Society – a residential and social action programme for 16 year-olds. Its aim is to foster a more cohesive, responsible and engaged society by encouraging social mixing and aiding young peoples’ transition to adulthood – developing the skills and motivation needed for them to get more involved in their local community. The pilot phase of NCS will run across the next two summers which presents all the possible opportunities and pitfalls of an experimental pilot of this size.

This is an important evaluation of a significant and experimental intervention. Like in any complex evaluation, as social researchers we face the challenges of capturing and attributing hard-to-measure outcomes. In this case it’s things like improved self-esteem, confidence and social relationships which are central to making NCS a success.

We’re currently working hard with civil servants and providers of NCS to implement a research design that will enable us to do this. We hope not only to provide a robust assessment of NCS, but also provide some important wider learning on how to evaluate and measure the more subtle mechanisms, such a social mixing, that will help the Big Society evolve. It's a challenge we're looking forward to. And it may offer valuable research design insights that extend beyond the project. So, please do get in touch if you've any ideas or comments, and if you're attending the SRA event tomorrow, it'd be great to share ideas in person.

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