Lord Wei, the Coalition Government’s Big Society ‘tsar’, stood down today. Cue a chorus of puns about small society and volunteers doing his job, and more dire warnings about how Cameron’s flagship policy is under threat. But in the midst of all this we should still ask what is worth pursuing out of the ideas corralled under the Big Society banner.
Coming the day after Cameron again relaunched Big Soc, this is indeed a blow. However, within the Big Society policy there are useful principles and opportunities which the voluntary sector and those working for more local civic engagement would do well to remember.
Government says “It’s about putting more power in people’s hands – a massive transfer of power from Whitehall to local communities”. What’s not to like? However, it’s Government that has decided how this should happen. A truly radical approach would have been less dogmatic and more co-productive.
So, the three principles of Big Society and what they could be:
- Community empowerment – not restricted to planning reforms, dubious in the amount of power they actually give to communities, but new ways of engaging people in meaningful democratic conversations. Stepping outside weary old ‘consultation’, the traditional routes through formal networks and the same community representatives (although these have enormous value and should not be ignored) and think about how a non-partisan, continuous, reciprocal conversation can be established between citizens and their local government.
- Opening up public services – competition can improve quality, but this is not always true in all of the cases. This dogmatic approach misunderstands the nature of public services, the feeling of many citizens, and just simple geography. If opening public services means investing in long term preventative solutions (often offered exclusively by third sector providers who have a commitment to the client, not the profit margin); if it means understanding that co-designed services can result in better outcomes for people, often at less cost in the long run (but acknowledging that this process in itself is not free), and if it means commissioners being bold enough to include ‘buy local’ and social value clauses in their ITTS, then bring it on.
- Social action – encouraging people to play a more active part in society is a laudable aim. But current policy fails to look at why people don’t. If your life is chaotic, or your job insecure, or if you struggle to make ends meet, or if you are housed in an area where you aren’t exactly relaxed about your neighbours, being chided to ‘take part’ is just irrelevant. Continued, long term, stable, strategic investment is needed to even out the ability of the country to ‘take part’. Something beyond training for unpaid Community Organisers and the odd grant through Community First – if you can raise the match funding needed to access it.
Government has failed to define Big Society in a way that resonates with people, they have failed to separate the brand from the cuts, and they refuse to accept (or to do anything about) the fact that swingeing cuts to local government will undermine their stated ambitions on Big Society.
In addition to this, Lord Wei has not been a universal hit. I will refrain from describing my own experiences of working with him. It may be a blessing in disguise that he has stepped down, I doubt he will be replaced, but if he is, his successor would do to listen more and announce less.