02/10/2011 20:00 BST | Updated 02/12/2011 05:12 GMT

The Big Society Exists. The Problem is Finding it

As the Conservative Party conference kicks off in earnest, the Big Society is once again back on everyone's lips.

It's been said that the idea is slowly being jettisoned, brushed under the carpet, but as yet nobody is really quite sure. In the next few days, we'll almost certainly find out.

The problem, of course, is that nobody really understands what the Big Society is, other than a pastiche of concepts, economic, political and philanthropic.

Or, depending on your position, a euphemism for Big Cuts.

Perhaps the only thing that is certain, and which most people would agree on, is that it's about people, organisations and communities driving things -- rather than the state. Whatever those things are.

In my opinion, the problem is that people, the Government, maybe even the keenest apologists of the Big Society, have over-conceptualised it, have looked for complex ideas and ideals that do not exist, and do not even need to exist.

Why so? Because the reality is that the Big Society already exists, it's there, it's happening now. It's just a case of helping people and communities -- and indeed the Government -- to find it.

We can only talk about the Big Society from our own experience, of course. And in our experience, there are tens of thousands of voluntary and community organisations providing vital services in neighbourhoods across the country each and every day.

This is the Big Society in action, just not in words. These countless organisations, local and 'hyperlocal', do not go under a single banner or think of themselves as part of any government initiatives. They just get on with the important work they're doing.

But what they lack, and what prevents them from being the Big Society, is any real and coherent framework. They're the Big Society in everything but name.

So the key issue for us it not whether the Big Society exists -- we feel it does -- but rather that the Government needs to put in place an infrastructure, a framework, call it whatever you will, that somehow links it all up.

To some extent, we're trying to do exactly that ourselves -- albeit on a smaller scale. At StartHere, we try to help the most vulnerable people in our society navigate the maze of statutory and voluntary organisations that are there to help them.

We do this by aggregating knowledge and data from thousands of support services across the country and present it in the form of a constantly updated platform that people can use to find the elements of the Big Society that they need.

Marcel Proust said that 'the real voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing with new eyes".

Following on from this, maybe the challenge for the Government is to see what is already there, just in a new way, rather than imagine what is not.