Government Reservists 2 – an idea for the Big Society?

I’m on a train to London for the launch of the Big Society Network  and pondering.  This week Nat Wei described the Network  as having a

…mission to be – in partnership with government, business, and the voluntary sector – an action-orientated remover of barriers to mass civic engagement where people live – enabling the change we want to be.

He also wants what The Guardian described as

an army of community organisers that will become the “catalyst” for communities to band together and challenge the apparently arbitrary decisions made about public services in their name. “I want them to be the glue bringing community together. They will be financially independent of government. They will be able to have different views from government. There can be healthy debate and this can build social capital. [Organisers] I hope will end up as trusted as the local GP,”


In 2008 I wrote a post musing about the idea of a sort of Territorial Army for government. I was thinking about the implications of a growing band of self organising citizens being able to do more of the stuff government does.  I was thinking how this might mean we need government which is more flexible, better able to shrink or expand quickly. Here is just some of what I was chipping away at:

I first found myself thinking of the role of government as a “pilot light” at a Department for Communities and Local Government event on digital inclusion. Most government bodies are prone to consider themselves as somehow permanent but what would they be like if they got their collective heads around being only sometimes on? The pilot light on the boiler that hums quietly away, then sparks into life when things get a bit chilly.

That, of course, is very Keynsian and at the moment [in 2008] government is turning itself to full roar and bunging on all 4 rings on the gas cooker in an attempt to get some heat back into the economy.

What is interesting though is how we habitually structure most government on an assumption of permanence.  That means that when we need more government we struggle to find the capacity and when we need less we are clumsy at shrinking, often reluctant to scale it back and put the excess capacity to useful work elsewhere.

It wasn’t a complete set of thoughts and the comments on that post were both encouraging and cautioning.

Dave Briggs wrote:

There is no doubt that there are a number of civically minded people in the private and third sectors who have a sufficiently strong interest in government – and specifically *good* government – that they would be willing to make themselves available when required.

You hit it on the head when you mentioned culture, though. To bring in the reservists, those in charge have to be able to spot that they haven’t the ability or experience to get things done.

While Andy Sawford of the Local Government Information Unit wrote:

I love your idea of reservists. Will explore this with the LGiU team.

I still think the idea of government as (in some circumstances) a pilot light which can roar into action when needed is relevant.  Perhaps more today than we could predict in 2008?

Government reservists might also help change the way citizens and government relate to each other.

The Big Society – half in half out.

We do need government to change itself and fast.  Might government reservists now be a way for active citizens and government staff to understand each other better, work together more closely and wrought change?

If many of the people in these community organsiations can also have the opportunity to work as a government reservist, on a similar model and pay structure as the Territorial Army, how will that change relationships between government and citizen?

  • What will government learn from reservists?
  • What will reservist learn from government
  • Would people do it?
  • What does it mean for public workers losing their jobs?
  • Could this be applied more intensively in neighbourhoods (as part of the next stage of Total Place )  – with super reservists being deployed for longer stretches to tackle particular problems
  • What might this idea break?
  • What new things could emerge from it?

Apologies for lumping all government in as one – some of the answers require a “it depends” – but just asking


  1. Jaki says:

    What a fascinating idea. I find reservists a tricky word – or maybe an “other world” word – but think the concept is bold and very interesting. I wonder if there are already people effectively doing this – magistrates? Interns (ish – short term and project focussed)? School governors (though they don’t get paid)? Jurors? All ordinary citizens oiling the wheels of society.

    There is very often a real blur between what should be paid for and what volunteers will happily do. I love the thought that willing volunteers are given a real chance to contribute and some reward back.

  2. j partridge says:

    Like the idea. Police Minister Nick Herbert mentions police reservists in his 2007 paper whilst in opposition, and of course we already have police specials. The biggest issue with specials is that they can’t be compelled to work when needed, unlike army reservists.

  3. Nick Booth says:

    Thanks for the comment – I’m imagining it would be very rare to have a situation where it might be useful to compel reservists – but thanks for reminding us of another useful parallel.

    I wonder why this idea seems restricted in our minds to uniformed services?

  4. Tim Davies says:

    Hey Nick

    A related idea is developed in Matthew Burton’s ‘A Peace Corps for Programmers‘ essay in O’Reilly’s recent collection on Open Government.

    I wonder if the key is to focus on what would make this different from just consultancy… or contract work. Is there a link to Andy Gibson’s point at bsnopen about the need for a ‘stipend’ for work of social value – such that the infrastructure is created for a relationship between engaged ‘reservist’ and state.

  5. Andy Mabbett says:

    One could argue that the government already has reservists – and that they’re called “consultants”.

    But seriously – if this does take off, will there be equivalent (to that for TA members) legislation, requiring employers to release people for such duties? Or will this only be for the retired, unemployed and self-employed? And would employers not protest?

  6. j partridge says:

    The issue with being able to compel reservists is that they are very useful in two circumstances.l The first is to provide specialist skills that organisations can’t afford/justify to keep in house, and the second is to smooth out periods of high demand rather than keeping large standing organisations at all times.

    In either case organisations need to be able to plan resources available against demand, and if people can say no, then you have to rely on other solutions…paying temporary staff large amounts, or having a large standing organisation…

    • Nick Booth says:

      I agree with all the above, but I’m also thinking of reservists as a means or reconnecting neighborhoods and government, less as a way of managing resource and more has a means of creating new flows of information and understanding – which might makes government less costly in the long run. (I am in truth thinking of it as both)

  7. JonSHarvey says:

    Some thoughts:

    1) Perhaps graduates would be able to work off their student loan by doing x weeks/months of reservist activity

    2) Army reservists and eg special constables are well trained – we must not forget the need to train these reservists

    3) This will need resources and structures to make this work – notwithstanding all the issues around H&S, indemnity, CPD etc

  8. Lloyd Davis says:

    What worries me is it becoming a centralised approach to decentralisation. This might work, in some places. It might be really good for some bits of government but not others. What definitely won’t work is if Mr Pickles (isn’t that the name of Jonathon Ross’s ugly fat pug?) and his henchpeople put their faith and therefore our money, into “mass” approaches to everything.

    Nick, I’d much rather see you supported in continuing to empower local people in a way that makes sense to them and to you, than worrying about grand schemes like this.

    oh I’m in a harrumphing mood tonight x

  9. nik butler says:

    This sounds like the function of the Open Source Movement it works very well until small oligarchies establish within projects to ensure ‘not invented here’ or ‘not one of us’ mentallities.

    However in terms of what I read I think of it like:

    For the Civic Minded; read tht a developer spots a niche or unanswered problem and answers this with an application ( voluntarily ) .

    For Ability supplementation the open development model leaves room for successful and interesting projects[1] to receive focus out from its core in self disciplined inter-communicative skill sets.

    Programs are created, volunteers offer time and expertise to manage updates and fixes. Others lend websites, mail, forums and irc support infrastructure. Which scale very well.

    look to the Ubuntu code of conduct as an approach for civil commitments to a community.

    [1] yes the downside is less popular projects recieve less attention and as a result many things like webcams, scanners etc done work as well.

  10. Nick Booth says:

    I think Lloyd has a legit query there. Nik your points are useful too. I’m thinking that this could follow the TA model – people paid to be reservists. So not so open sourceish? Even so you’re comparison is interesting.

  11. The thing about reservists is that they have a day job, for which they get paid. I like the idea of a corps of people who can come to the aid of government as and when needed, but to do that the labour market has to be big enough to provide alternative livelihoods for them most of the time.

    And, as I’ve blogged here, that hasn’t happened in the last hundred years. So that’s the real issue we need to crack: how to create enough jobs at a decent standard of living for everybody. If we can do that, of course, we wouldn’t need so much government anyway.

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