It has been de rigeur on the left and right to pour scorn on the whole idea of the Big Society. I felt rather differently. I was enormously excited by the Big Society rhetoric when David Cameron first gargled with it, irritated that the Lib Dems had not articulated those things first - voluntarism is a core Liberal idea, after all.
The Big Society was lucky enough to have an articulate, thoughtful and imaginative envoy in Nat Wei, but that was the limit of its advantages. I went to meet some of the people most involved a few weeks into the coalition government, and was so flabbergasted by the lack of depth of the whole thing - the absence of ideological roots - that I found myself almost unable to say anything in reply.
The Big Society had its own roots in the Big Lunch, which was a fantastic project - but it provided very few lessons for public policy except that it would be nice to talk to neighbours now and again.
There seemed to be no understanding, even among the advocates of the Big Society, of the insights since the 1970s of people like Elinor Ostrom, Edgar Cahn, John McKnight and Neva Goodwin - of co-production, asset-based community development and the 'core economy' - and the critique of public services that they represent.
I felt then, and feel even more now, that the Big Society as articulated was far too vague and broad - and it needed to be applied primarily to public services. Especially working out how public services could be organised as engines that could knit society together around them.
So I was fascinated to read the blog by NESTA's Philip Colligan which sets out precisely this in a series of examples, and which coincides with the announcement of NESTA's joint venture with the Cabinet Office, the Centre for Social Action.
This is important stuff, and for all the reasons that Edgar Cahn set out. When services are just delivered one-way, by professionals to grateful and passive recipients, it seems to undermine the power and ability of communities to make things happen. When they allow people to give back, to work alongside professionals delivering services, then the power balance begins to shift.
This seems to me to be a key insight about the future direction of services.
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