“We don’t always know how it ends” is a wonderful line in West Wing when chief of staff Leo McGarry argues with President Bartlett for a policy he believes is profoundly right even though the implications and risks were unclear.

As someone who has been struggling a little to understand what the Big Society actually is, means or will do, Editorial Intelligence’s excellent “is the Big Society working?” breakfast talk yesterday shone a little light into some previously dark corners.

Two thirds in the dark

I was among the two thirds or so of the attendees who didn’t put their hands up when asked whether they thought they knew what the Big Society was.

It was a telling show of hands. You might expect that self-selecting group who were sufficiently engaged to brave the early start to be among the better informed. Only a third felt they were. Who knows how many actually did.

Change of mindset

It started to make sense as successive speakers, including Steve Moore (director of engagement at the Big Society Network) and Nick Hurd MP (minister for civil society) and Jenni Russell (Sunday Times and Guardian commentator), talked about the change of mindset that is needed both to understand it, and then to make it work.

It is not meant to be the sort of government programme that we’re all used to, with a beginning, middle and end, we were told.

It is meant to be a call to arms, to prompt a different way of thinking. A culture change, and not overnight, which empowers people to take greater control of the things which have an immediate impact on their quality of life.

It aims to help deliver more accountable public services, help with welfare reform and help people feel more able to make a difference to their own lives. In doing that, though, it does not, certainly yet have a clear process to deliver specific outcomes.

I was left thinking it is grass-roots social policy which recognises Government is not best-placed to identify what works best. Pragmatically it also recognises that as big government has failed so in the past it is time for it to get out the way so others can try. The impetus of mammoth public spending cuts will probably help.

In other words, we don’t know how the Big Society will end, or necessarily where it will go next, though there’s a series of initiatives coming down the line to help move it along.

Breaking down barriers

Part of the different way of thinking for many may be to get past the fear and suspicion of “getting involved”.

Swathes of bureaucracy, police vetting, health and safety and insurance demands are very real barriers to doing things like running a local soccer team or helping out with the Scouts.

It is also meant to be more than a middle class concept (or fantasy).

Beyond the chattering classes

For others, there’s a different mountain to climb: to get past the perception that the Big Society “doesn’t apply to me”. Among the socially excluded the challenge is to show communities that they actually can get involved and make a difference to their lives.

The talk was peppered with examples of areas and local initiatives which have mobilised the socially excluded and made a real difference to the lives of those involved.

Some have come through meticulous, almost door-to-door, engagement. Others because a hot issue close to home, such as prostitution on the doorstep, ignited local action. Those that have mobilised have become advocates.

While there are efforts to share and pool best practice, the answers don’t lie in easily transferrable “models” that can be lifted and shifted from one place to the next.

Steve Moore characterised the common theme among successful projects as “inspiration coming to life in isolated differences” which were peculiar to each, and that “the Big Society is a collection of little stories, not one grand narrative”.

A role for big business

The lack of an easily defined winning formula does not mean though that local communities should be left to their own devices.

The private and third sectors need to work together, and there is evidence of that working. Nick Hurd MP, albeit the government’s official cheerleader, commended the supermarkets for doing amazing things once they transferred power to the stores.

Cynics might argue that the green shoots of these initiatives were showing long before the expression Big Society was coined. That might miss the point though, if approach makes a difference: empower people at a local level to decide what to do, then get out of the way and let them to get on with it.

Ethereal and real

A little ethereal as it still is, the Big Society is here to stay, not least because big business is getting on board. The mobile providers are gearing up.

We know it is being taken seriously among large corporates because, we were told, “management and brand strategists are beginning to get involved. It has gone beyond CSR”.

What exactly it means for CSR, that initiatives come to life when others adopt them, remains to be seen. Then again driving new issues onto the mainstream agenda may be the whole point.