Thursday, July 22, 2010

How big? Introducing the Societometer

I had a mild rant the other day about the phrase ‘big society’ and how the concept of society’s size makes no sense. But, like a good blogger, I’ve now done some research and it turns out that there is an accepted measure, the Societometer, that gives regular assessments of how big society is.

Historical records show that society was huge in the 1950s, tending to shrink a little in the 1960s and more rapidly in the 1970s. Apparently, due to a small fire at the Office for National Statistics information warehouse five weeks ago, no figures exist for the years 1979-97, so we cannot possibly draw any conclusions about what happened during that period and must never mention it.

But it can clearly be seen that over Labour’s time in office, society hardly increased in size at all, and has even shrunk since 2007 – although the very latest figures show that in the five months leading up to the election, society did grow by 1.7%, as Labour leadership contenders have been quick to seize on. However, Downing Street argues that this increase was due to people expecting a change of government, and so acting so make society bigger in anticipation.

The current Societometer reading, for June, puts society at 33.2 SBU (social bigness units), although this preliminary estimate is subject to revision.

David Cameron has set an ambitious target, aiming to double the size of society in real terms by 2015. He has established the Office for Societal Embiggenment to assess progress towards this aim, although its independence has been called into question after it produced a set of very favourable predictions.

By contrast, the respected think-tank the Institute for Quantifying Woolly Abstractions calculates that policies announced so far will enlarge society by little over a quarter, and that this increase will be concentrated in better-off neighbourhoods where people share the same private security firm and know each other’s interior designers’ names.

There has been speculation that the government may change the way society’s size is calculated, giving less statistical weight to poorer areas on the grounds that they are ‘broken society’ and so appear smaller than they actually are. Furthermore, given the general austerity drive, it would be more efficient to measure fewer parts of society – the larger bits are easier to do – and then extrapolate from them. Critics say that this would be fiddling the figures, but no decisions will be taken until a commission led by maverick Labour MP Mark Meadow has reported.

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