Not too slow, not too fast
Enthusiasts for the Big Society will have mixed feelings having perused the Guardian today.
On the one hand the paper reports a survey by YouGov undertaken for the think tank Demos (I must admit to being ambivalent about think tanks using superficial opinion polls to found out anything much significant, but this one does seem interesting). You can read the article for yourself or go to the source material but the gist is that the crucial swing voters who abandoned Labour between 2005 and 2010 tended to be more sceptical (indeed hostile) towards state activity than more traditional Labour supporters. It seems these voters are open to the Big Society message that Government should do less and civil society (that means us) more.
On the other hand the paper reports the results of an initial attempt at crowd sourcing to shape Government policy. It seems to have fallen flat. Not many people got involved and those that did will be disappointed (but perhaps not surprised ) to find no evidence that their ideas have made any impact on policy. The quotation in the article from Simon Burall, director of Involve – a group advising bodies on consultation – is right on the button. He said:
“You have to give the government some credit for trying to do this, but badly designed consultations like this are worse than no consultations at all. They diminish trust and reduce the prospect that people will engage again. This is a dangerous problem for a government that is going to have to take people with them when they make very difficult decisions.”
That bad practice is worse than nothing is generally true of all forms of public engagement, for example, Gordon Brown’s ‘citizen’s juries which turned out to be no more than consultation meetings.
The problem for the Coalition, and for David Cameron in particular, is that, on the one hand, it needs to address public scepticism by showing it is doing things differently from the start while, on the other, it will suffer equal if not more loss of face if it launches ideas which are not well thought through or makes exaggerated claims about public enthusiasm (as has Mr Gove about parental aspirations to run schools).
The YouGov poll shows key voters are sympathetic to aspects of the Big Society argument. But it will take skilled statecraft and effective communication to get the right balance between building momentum and avoiding false starts.