BIG SOCIETY DEBATE HOTS UP
Many still struggling to get a handle on what it means for them
The Times front page on Monday 24 January splashed ‘Big Society in crisis as economy weakens’. The article suggests a build-up of pressure on David Cameron and his Government amid confusion over the Big Society and what it actually means. On 7 February Dame Elisabeth Holdness, who is stepping down as Director of Community Service Volunteers , told the Times that the Government had failed to provide tangible opportunities for people to do more in their communities. In some cases, “massive cuts” imposed on local councils had actually taken them away. “Does one hand know what the other hand is doing?” she said. “We know we need to save money, but there are other ways of saving money without destroying the volunteer army.”
The Sun conducted a poll a couple of weeks ago on the Big Society -68% of respondents thought it would probably not work and 63% said that they didn’t really understand the concept. There are a number of on-going problems with the Big Society, mainly practical. The idea of local communities taking more ownership of public services seems on the face of it pretty sound. The trouble is that there are far too many views out there among its supporters of what it means in practice at a time when local budgets are being cut. Many local authorities don’t seem to get it and they are supposed to let it inform their commissioning policy . And ,as the Times pointed out many government Departments don’t seem to have bought in to the idea either partly because there is no clear template. Policy wonks in think tanks who dreamed up the idea tend to be thinkers rather than doers and change managers. The Times piece contains many quotes from Phillip Blond, head of the think tank ResPublica . Blond sees the promotion of mutualism as the key issue but there is a real sense that this is all being rushed in, based on the assumption, which may be flawed, that mutual organisations, social enterprises and charities will react as one to the great call for a sense of community engagement, in a short time frame and against the backdrop of shrinking public finances. And what about the lack of capacity and funds in disadvantaged areas? It does seem that many of the organisations who are supposed to lead on this are finding that government grants are being cut. The highly regarded charity Fairbridge that works with disadvantaged youngsters, anticipating large cuts to its budget, is now merging with the Princes Trust, because its funding was haemorrhaging. So many of those organisations who should be taking the lead here, are struggling to survive in a hostile environment.
The Big Society approach involves changing peoples mindsets. They have been used to central government calling the shots. They cant change their attitudes and outlook overnight, which seems to be the expectation. And the initiative can only really work if these groups have access to funding streams within some form of local accountability framework. How will this work? As Matthew Taylor, former adviser to Blair and now at the RSA and a supporter in principle of the Big Society, says “The ideas of the Big Society can’t change the world overnight, and anyone with any sense recognises the challenges of taking the idea forward in a time of public sector austerity. But as long as the Big Society continues to be everything, it is in danger of becoming nothing.” He continues the Big society “ relies too much on assertion and anecdote and too little on testable hypotheses on the one hand, and a clear headed recognition of dilemmas and trade-offs on the other.” In short, it needs more meat and clearer articulation, combined with working models- ie now here is an example of the Big Society in operation-see how it can work. Liverpool’s decision to opt out of the pilot scheme to promote the Big Society is a set back for those championing the idea. Its supporters need to regroup and get key stakeholders on board otherwise it will meet the fate of Blairs ‘ third way’ which never quite caught the public’s imagination..