Friday 22 February 2013

Rescuing the Big Society from itself

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.


Kiwi Marie said...

Your last paragraph explains exactly why my colleague Dave and I set up our social enterprise. We both worked in the same council in 'community development' roles but we felt that we were constantly being asked to steer groups to fit in with council agendas rather than working with groups to really get to grips with community issues. We were working on a voluntary basis more and more to work with the groups on what they needed to do and in the end it was easier to leave the council. Our social enterprise focuses on working alongside groups when they need us, doing what they need us to do and passing on our expertise over time. We travel 'their' journey with them and this is what is needed if we are to make a difference to individual people's lives. The groups have to have a knowledgeable critical friend to call on so they are confident in what they are doing. That's what we aim to be.

Rose said...

Indeed, when the Big Society was launched the first time, it was received with a cold shoulder, at best. No one wanted to really take it on board - partly because, as you say, it was far too vague.

The thing is, even after the third attempt at getting the concept sunk in, the damage was already done, and it was perceived to be another government loss.

I can tell you that it wasn't a complete loss. I was asked to join a volunteer network group which was riding high on the wave of the Big Society. Our learning curve has been huge, and I can honestly say I am glad the Big Society came about when it did, albeit briefly, because it challenged us, and we are all the better for it. We still volunteer within the same group. To us, it's main message is challenge yourself and be willing to listen and engage with others.

Ironically, the Big Society wants a set up whereby locals have a far greater say in how their areas are run. Of course this can't happen, because it means councils have to go through a massive shift in structure and a lot of people will need a lot of training. You are, after all, looking at changes in attitudes and culture. With budget cuts the bedrock of councils and many other, deep rooted issues, change can only be drip fed at best.

Thanks for a fantastic insight with your blog.