Friday 23 July 2010

Why we need a Big Society guarantee

The problem is very simple and rather stark. The kind of public spending cuts coming down the line are unprecedented, with many government departments reducing their spending by a quarter. Many of the services that we have come to assume are necessary to civilised life will disappear.

The rhetoric of the Big Society assumes, correctly in many ways, that there may be other, community-driven alternatives. But we also know that, in many of the places that need it most, these will probably not emerge.

Why? Because people assume that the existing way of providing services – heavily over-stretched and over-professional, ministering to passive, grateful recipients – is the only way of doing it.

Because a decade of No Ball Games culture (at least the culture of No Ball Games without an all-weather court and a health and safety inspector on standby) has corroded the vitality and entrepreneurialism of many public employees.

And because the regime of targets, auditing, standards and best practice is still alive and well, and ready to pounce on anything that is non-standard. But there is something to be done, and it is included in my new co-production report Right Here, Right Now (

It suggests that there should be a Big Society or Co-production Guarantee which enshrines the coalition’s Big Society rhetoric in a promise to people who want to make a difference. It would allow services or users to appeal over the heads of regulators, to use co-production – delivering services alongside professionals – and embed it in their own operations if they want.

Its purpose would be to encourage people, their families and communities to get involved in day to day public services – anything from co-operative nurseries to time banks in surgeries – and would force regulators and local authorities to allow co-production to take place on a much wider scale.

It would provide an official stamp of approval, with reasonable safeguards, and help to establish co-production as the standard way of doing things - a get-out-of-jail-free card for any reasonable and exciting scheme stymied by regulations.

The Big Society Guarantee would back innovators against bureaucracies, and would back local against the centre. But it would also back local people against streamlined corporate power.

I hope the coalition has the nerve to do it – it would show they mean business about unleashing local energy.

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