RSA report

Is the BS  too idealistic? Is it resonating with public? Not really.


The Big Society, David Cameron’s big idea at the last election, has  pretty much failed to embed itself in the public consciousness. There are a number of reasons for this. One is that the very bright think tankers and policy wonks who came up with the idea in the first place  have spent twice as much time talking  among themselves about it than they have   selling and explaining the concept, and what it looks like in practice,   to potential stakeholders.  Its all been rather incestuous.  None of this has been helped by the  shortage of public funds . The potential  delivery agents   have suffered big cuts  in   these straitened  times  . This hasn’t stopped Philip Blond and his think tank ResPublica from continuing to promote the idea , with considerable vigour, along with thinkers such as Mathew Taylor of the RSA .

A new report from the RSA ‘Beyond the Big Society Psychological Foundations of active citizenship’ looks at the Curriculum of the Big Society.  Curriculum literally means to ‘run the course’, as in curriculum vitae, the course of my life. The ‘curriculum’ of the Big Society is viewed here as a long term process of cultural change, consisting of the myriad activities and behaviours that people are  explicitly being asked to participate in and subscribe to. The hidden curriculum of this process of cultural change comprises the attitudes, values and competencies that are required for this process. The main purpose of this report is ‘to highlight the nature of this hidden curriculum, and indicate how it might inform policy and practice, particularly in relation to releasing hidden social wealth and increasing social productivity’. As this report acknowledges the public’s ambivalent attitude to the Big Society is at least partly due to the Government’s failure to articulate their vision clearly. The big idea in the Big Society that has cross-party agreement and public support, this report claims, is the need to make more of our ‘hidden wealth’- the human relationships that drive and sustain the forms of participation needed to make society more productive and at ease with itself. But this needs in turn a pretty fundamental change in peoples attitudes. Available evidence suggests the level of mental complexity required to develop the competencies required to make the Big Society work is not currently widespread in the adult population. So the report suggests that  for the Big Society to take root, we need to invest more time and energy making  sure that the forms of participation and engagement called for as part of the Big  Society are supported by formal and informal adult education. Social productivity requires that people are both supported and challenged.  Part of a think tanks job is to make us think about issues and this report certainly does that. Unfortunately it also, for me at least, reinforces the perception that there is a great divide between the aspirational thinking and expectations of Big Society thinkers and what is deliverable in practice on the ground for the foreseeable future. Big Society thinking   suggests that people need to be re-engaged as “active citizens”, and enabled to take informed decisions about their lives, communities and workplaces but also to be more participative in designing and in providing services that are demand driven.  However, many people are both disengaged and lack the confidence, skills, knowledge or understanding to do so. This is particularly true for people with little formal education and those most at risk of social exclusion. But even among educated and informed citizens, who perceive advantages in participating more in grass roots initiatives to protect their, and their communities interests, you will find few who are prepared to devote the time and energy on a sustained basis to participate in community driven initiatives, and this is even more so, if there is a lack of available  funding. And,  of course,  many will be expected to act on a pro bono basis.

It is also the case  that there have been too few examples  presented of what the Big Society looks like in practice. And the very bodies – local authorities – that might kick start the initiative  apart from feeling the financial squeeze , remain , for the most part, unsure of what the Big Society means for them and its  practical implications for their commissioning and procurement of services. Time for a rethink?


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