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The Big Society debate must move on

January 24, 2011 by
Filed under: Public policy 

The Times front page splash is ‘Big Society in crisis as economy weakens’. The article is a bit of a dog’s dinner conflating a number of different stories to suggest a build-up of pressure on David Cameron and his Government.  But from what I can see running on Twitter (including among ‘the friends of the Big Society’), it feels like unless Number Ten moves quickly this might be a turning point against the credibility of the whole project.

I have posted on what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of the Big Society so far. One of the vulnerabilities of such a broad strategy is that all of us who have expressed support have our own idea of what matters most. The Times piece contains many quotes from Phillip Blond, head of the think tank ResPublica (whether he undertook the briefing on behalf of elements in Number Ten is an intriguing question).  While my biggest worry about the Big Society is the lack of realism about capacity in disadvantaged areas, Phillip sees the promotion of mutualism as the key issue. From ailing football clubs to the Port of Dover, he has been disappointed by the failure of the Government to get behind opportunities to expand the mutual sector. 

The ideas of the Big Society can’t change the world overnight, and anyone with any sense recognises the challenges of taking the idea forward in a time of public sector austerity. But as long as the Big Society continues to be everything, it is in danger of becoming nothing.  Economists sometimes criticise a theory saying it is ‘not good enough to be wrong’. By this they mean the idea lacks even the explanatory power even to be disproven, let alone to be validated. Whilst it may not be possible to save the credibility of the Big Society by a new policy or spending announcement, it could be given some new life by a clearer intellectual exposition.

Even among its more eloquent advocates – like Lord Wei (one of the targets of the Times briefing) – accounts of the Big Society rely too much on assertion and anecdote and too little on testable hypotheses on the one hand, and a clear headed recognition of dilemmas and trade-offs on the other.

Here’s an example of the latter:  I was chatting the other day to a community activist who had up until then been giving me a largely positive account of meetings in her area to promote the idea of a neighbourhood plan, an idea which could potentially be a very exciting route into greater local engagement.  But now it appears, even at this early stage, that factions are emerging. This throws open the question of who is going to be the facilitator and honest broker of neighbourhood planning. The obvious candidate is the local authority but as neighbourhood plans may often be developed explicitly to counter local authority planning policy this is a bit like asking a turkey to organise Christmas lunch.

A couple of years ago we might have looked to CLG civil servants or maybe an organisation like CABE to develop thinking and support practice in neighbourhood planning, but it is unclear where the capacity now lies. Which leaves the impression that the Government simply thinks communities will somehow work it out by themselves. But, this is such a vague and groundless expectation it doesn’t even provide something to debate.

If the Big Society debate doesn’t get more substantive and granular quickly, it will feel like the only credible thing to do is knock the whole idea.



  • william perrin

    here’s some video of phillip blond only last week talking about the big society, mutuals etc. in a discursive lecture and then Q and A that i took last week in the stygian gloom of BIS

    certainly didn’t seem to be any sense of crisis then

  • donpaskini

    Good post.

    On the neighbourhood planning stuff, worth noting that CLG cut the £3.9 million grant to Planning Aid, and instead are going to spend £3 million per year on funding 3-5 1 year pilots into supporting communities in neighbourhood planning.

    They also see a key role for the 500 community organisers which they are going to train in neighbourhood planning – particularly in ensuring that decisions aren’t dominated by a vocal minority.

    So there is some detail about how these policies are going to work in practice. The problem is that the detailed policy ideas are even more hopeless than the vague rhetoric. With the best will in the world, a few 1 year pilots and 1 community organiser per local authority area (who has to raise their own funding) is going to be woefully inadequate in supporting delivery of neighbourhood plans.

  • Julian Dobson

    The idea of coming up with a ‘clean’ narrative on community and society, let alone one concocted in Number 10, is deeply flawed. We all, including the more ardent big society advocates, know that we’re dealing with fluid, messy systems – but ones which at their best can enable people to achieve astonishing changes.

    There are some sound concepts within the ‘big society’ discourse – subsidiarity, co-production, a recognition that innovation comes from human interaction and not performance targets. But to get anywhere near making these ideas work you have to build skills and capacity and allow time – all the things the government is bypassing in its rush to get things done quickly.

  • Nik Hilton

    The Big Society concept is too big and indefinable for the public to engage with or relate to beyond a cool new buzz word which is a shame because I think it’s heart is in the right place.

    Without human stories to explain the meaning behind the concept, the Big Society is in danger of being misunderstood or not even understood at all!

  • David Wilcox

    Matthew – I agree with your analysis. I don’t think there’s much point trying to develop the narrative, or suggest policy tweaks. I don’t believe Government is engaged with that discussion, and it doesn’t make much sense on the ground, where people are more concerned with the impact of cuts. We are just talking to each other, mostly in London.
    I think the area of opportunity for those who do want to make the best of Big Society opportunities is around the challenge of convening that you identify: both locally and across disciplines and sectors, online and face to face.
    I made a (probably rather naive) stab at making sense of this in some slides I’ve included in this blog post identifying domains of innovation as the roles, networking approach, asset mapping, blended methods.
    I think these are all themes RSA has been working on in various ways through projects, or excellent events.
    How about convening an event to figure out how to make use of this RSA – and other – expertise more widely available on the ground.
    Being friendly to Big Society isn’t enough on its own … we need some optimists and activists for Big/Our/Good Society.
    But not a lecture or panel discussion … something more like that terrific event that you organised in the house to launch RSA networks a few years ago, where people worked through project ideas to pitch back and get some support, ending up with some socialising.
    Let’s be bold and re-invent Big Society. It’s too important to leave to Government.

  • Peter Millar

    Governments have been knocking the Big Society for as long as I can remember, generally through the Law of Unintended Consequences.

    Examples: CRB checks, Planning Regs., Risk Assessment, Certificates for Everything …. Proof: Year after year there is a drop in the number of people volunteering

    We were hoping that this lot were going to buck the trend.

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  • Claire Cater

    It’s hard to disagree with a lot of what Matthew is saying. My frustration is this. We keep saying it’s about shifting power and it’s not all about central government. But then everyone still thinks that somehow Mr Cameron or Lord Wei should provide the answer. This is not all about individuals at the centre. We need to hear more from the people on the ground – from the local leadership. We also need to say the obvious – this stuff takes time and there will be many teething problems and yes – it’s imperfect. That should be the expectation. The fact that people are trying it and finding it difficult is a good not a bad thing. It’s normal. The Big Society is not a cure all – it’s a shift in how we work, think and live and that takes time. This is not something that can be resolved with a new announcement. One of the biggest challenges it seems – is that while people accept the principles – they still gravitate back to old habits. Looking to the centre and assuming that there should be a catchall 5 or 10 point plan. Last but not least – Big Society is meaningless to the majority. They think in terms of ‘their community’.

    It is true that the breadth is hard to grass for some. This will only start to be resolved when we hear more about ‘social democracy’ in practice on the ground. This will give us a frame of reference that’s missing.

    I do however worry about the challenge of local brokering. That’s a tough one. But it’s not impossible. At times it will require strong local leadership to take tough decisions – consensus should not always be expected.

    I hope that No 10 publishes all the learning’s from its recent Nordic Baltic summit (which sounded much more interesting than the title). I liked the sound of Estonia which is pioneering a different way to teach with a focus on developing adults who are committed, creative and fulfilled. They define an entrepreneur as someone who is curious, willing to learn, dares to try, acts responsible, takes others into account and copes with failure and uncertainty. Perhaps we need to recognise – that some of this is really a long term investment.

  • Andy Gibson

    Couldn’t agree more Matthew. My unanswered questions from last year are here, and I believe they all remain unanswered:

    For me the most troubling thing though is the pace of change, which is killing much of the voluntary sector at at time when the country is claiming to need it the most. We need a plan, either from or with the government, of practical steps we need to take and infrastructure we need in place for the Big Society to thrive. We need to get past the “everything is going to be wonderful” rhetoric and challenge those proponents of the project to explain the Why and the How. And we also need to nip in the bud the worrying trend in this government to see disagreement and dissent as obstructive naysaying and negativity which must be bypassed to effect change.

    I was struck in last night’s lecture that when I asked Sir Ronald Cohen how we can ensure social enterprises can compete with commercial interests for lucrative contracts rather than picking up all the non-viable markets, his answer was hopeful rather than evidenced. He believes that social enterprises will win tenders because they are culturally better suited and have greater connections with their communities – but there is no evidence of this happening now, nor of a plan to shift the structure and culture of government procurement to make this more likely in the future. It’s a nice story, but there was no acknowledgement of the practical constraints: the lack of capacity for social enterprises to deliver critical national services, the bureaucracy of government procurement which favours those with the money to spend on navigating the process, the innate conservatism and risk-aversion of the public sector, and the difficulty of scaling the kind of community and cultural factors which supposedly give social enterprise the edge.

    We need a constructive critical debate with the key figures to help them understand and tackle the obstacles to progress and create a practical plan for change at all levels of society. I believe if the Government wants to continue to take credit for this project, it should be convening this debate and facilitating the co-design process (or whatever we’re calling it these days) so that everyone who matters is heard. If they don’t, we need our civil society institutions (including the RSA) to do it instead. But someone needs to do it, and fast, and whoever it is needs to be heard by government, and they will need to make proper commitments to the social sector about fulfilling their side of the bargain.

    I’ve posted a few thoughts on practical next steps we might take here:

  • Barbara MacArthur

    Years ago equivalent ‘Big Societies’ existed. However, they were wrecked by subsequent governments (central and local) introducing ‘improvements’. I saw this happen during my years as a police officer, then 30+ years as a social worker and many years after as a voluntary worker with different organisations. I honestly cannot see it possible that it can be started again in the present situation. People and circumstances have changed.

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  • Michael

    In the context of this debate I think this article by the excellent Tim Smit well worth reading –

    Tim Smit – Guardian article 2007
    Think bigger and better: Social enterprise is not just about tiny community projects: it is a model for running big business and public services alike

    3 obseravtions (some from other sources/articles)

    – Tim Smit calls Eden a social enterprise – but he is not ashamed to say (declare) that it is run as a business.

    – Profit is not a dirty word.

    – Eden takes care to choose the right staff, but those that do not fit in, go. (Matthew has written about the problem of volunteer organsiations being undermined by volunteers who come in and end up poisoniong the entire enterprise).

    Maybe the RSA could invite him to speak on these and related matters?

  • Patricia

    A curious feature of the government’s Big Society agenda is the apparent attempt at reversing the long-established causal direction from the ‘base’ to the ‘superstructure’. Whereas it has been traditionally accepted (at least in some circles) that material/economic circumstances determine people’s attitudes and customs – the coalition government attempts to ‘engineer’ the Big Society ideology ex nihilo, given its lack of consideration for putting in place the right kind of structures. Blond’s suggestion to place mutualism at the heart of the Big Society agenda presents a refreshing effort to address the infrastructural issues. And yet, where Blond’s proposal suffers is – ironically – in ignoring that the superstructure also has a limited impact on the base. The point is simply that the dominant social attitude/culture makes some economic solutions more feasible than others. It is not an accident that discussing local trust networks, open lending guilds, etc., Blond relies so heavily on Italian and Eastern European examples. I know from my own experience that the Catholic ethos provides a fertile ground for the Big Society ideas to flourish. Given the demise of the old labour culture, short of resurrecting the Quaker movement, the climate might not prove so hospitable in the UK.

  • Andy Gibson

    Couldn’t have put it better myself Patricia, spot on. The lack of infrastructure-building is particularly frustrating, and directives from the centre simply don’t help if the groundwork isn’t in place. I also think there’s an interesting tension between the Coalition’s Big Society ethos and the ‘nudge’ behaviour change thinking: apparently we can be trusted to make conscious choices about what our communities need, but not to eat properly or look after our children.

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