Poor old Big Society. It does sometimes seem to be doomed.
The day in December when David Cameron made his set piece speech on business and the Big Society was also the day England got trounced in its World Cup bid. Today the Prime Minister has tried again to get people enthused but I rather suspect it won’t be his speech in Milton Keynes but a certain Welsh footballer who will be dominating the news headlines for the next 24 hours.
But the speech is important reading for that dwindling band of us willing to put up some defence of the Prime Minister’s big idea. I’m afraid I have to admit to being pretty underwhelmed by most of it. The long section on Big Society public services served to confirm the suspicion that almost anything can be referred to as a Big Society initiative. There may, for example, be lots of reason to give parents more school choice and set up more Academies (although very few of those set up by the Coalition are in the poorest areas) but it is hard to see how individual parental competition for places and establishing institutions which can – if they choose – more easily divest themselves of links to the wider local community is anything to do with strengthening social bonds.
I haven’t read the Giving White Paper and the tax changes look like they could be powerful, but I do have some concerns about the approach to philanthropy. It is good to offer people new ways of donating but as people tend to over-estimate how much they give the danger of being asked to round up our grocery bills and add a quid to our cash withdrawal is that it will, at best, simply displace other forms of giving
But that’s enough churlishness. Near the end of the speech there was a passage that was genuinely interesting. It chimed with my point on Friday that social brain thinking should direct us to looking at the whole purposes and systems of public services not just some nudging at the margins (by the way, thanks for all the people who responded far too kindly to my pathetic attention seeking threat to stop blogging). The Prime Minister’s words also offers a lever for those of us trying to get the whole of Whitehall to be a bit more convincing in its commitment to the Prime Minister’s agenda
“ And in a way that I don’t think has been sufficiently appreciated, we are bringing that insight right into the heart of the business of government.
Right across Whitehall we are today applying to the design of policy the best that science teaches us about how people behave – and what drives their well-being.
We are revising the ‘Green Book’ – the basis on which the Government assesses the costs and benefits of different policies – to fully take account of their social impact.
We are developing a new test for all policies – that they should demonstrate not just how they help reduce public spending and cut regulation and bureaucracy – but how they create social value too.
And, the Office for National Statistics is developing new independent measures of well-being so that by the end of the year, we will be the first developed country in the world that is able rigorously to measure progress on more than just GDP.”
I have in the past questioned the Government’s resistance to strategy and measurement of any kind. But if a social value test is to be meaningful it will have to have some basis in method. Perhaps what method should be chosen is an issue we could debate here at the RSA?
Generally leadership campaigns are good for political parties, but if you want to know why the longer Labour’s goes on, the more damage it is doing you need only read this reaction from Ed Miliband to David Cameron’s Big Society speech today. Ahead of actually hearing the speech he accused the Coalition of:
“Cynically attempting to dignify its cuts agenda by dressing up the withdrawal of support with the language of reinvigorating civic society“.
I’m sure this will go down well with the dwindling band of Labour activists and trade union paymasters. It may come across less well with a public which polls suggest is at least open minded about the Big Society, and in Liverpool which is hosting the speech. The Labour run City Council has successfully bid to be a ‘vanguard community’ taking forward the idea of the Big Society. And Liverpool isn’t the only Labour Council using the ideas of the Big Society.
I have just agreed to become a member of the Lambeth Co-operative Council Commission. From its well-deserved dire reputation in the eighties and nineties, Lambeth is now one of Labour’s most dynamic and successful councils. Here is a quote from its impressive leader Steve Reed in the introduction to the prospectus for the Co-operative Council:
‘ The first challenge relates to the type of relationship we need to create between citizen and public services. Increasingly communities and the state are recognizing that the public sector cannot do it all and that citizens need to be part of the solution to the challenges our increasingly complex and diverse communities face’
If the Coalition is guilty of ‘cynicism’, it looks like Councillor Reed has been well and truly duped! I might not use the ‘Spartist’ language of Mr Miliband but I have my own concerns about the Big Society idea. I won’t go into all this again, except to say that I do think Mr Cameron missed a messaging trick today. To underline his commitment to ‘progressive ends’ and to help counter scepticism, the Prime Minister could have had a stronger redistributive element.
In simple terms the message could be that advantaged communities have a great deal of resource in terms of money, skills, networks (to take one example middle class pensioners are healthier and live well longer than their poor counterparts). So the task involved in mobilizing those communities is primarily to create the opportunities for that capacity to be expressed.
But in disadvantaged communities the Big Society task is more difficult and more resource intensive. Here the need is to not just to tap into the ‘hidden wealth’ of these communities (and hidden wealth there is as the RSA Connected Communities project is finding) but also to provide the infrastructure of resources and skills needed to make the Big Society aspiration realistic and rewarding to those communities.
In essence the Big Society message should be ‘middle class people will be expected to do more, working class communities will be given the support to do more’. There will still be plenty of criticism, but such a message (using more nuanced language than this, of course) would make it even more difficult for pragmatic progressives like yours truly to heed the gloomy siren call of the likes of Mr Miliband.