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The irredeemable anecdotalism of the Big Society

April 7, 2011 by
Filed under: Uncategorized 

I hope she doesn’t mind me telling this story (after all, it’s only really my mum reading), but when she was Secretary of State at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport I once gave some rather impertinent advice to Tessa Jowell. It went something like this:

‘You are a politician who is sometimes portrayed by her critics as being a bit lightweight and fluffy and you are running a running a department that tends – at least in Whitehall – to be seen as rather lightweight and fluffy. So, every time you are asked to asked to make a speech, write an article or do an event you need to ask ‘will this make me and my job more seem more, or seem less, lightweight and fluffy?’. Only say ‘yes’ if it’s the latter’.   

Now is the time to give similar advice to the champions of the political project called the Big Society:

‘Your project is widely perceived as being vague and your assertions based on nothing but anecdote, so whenever you are asked to talk about, write about or host a discussion about the Big Society try at all costs to be concrete, specific and evidence based’.  

This is not advice which appears to have been offered to either Essex County Council or cabinet office minister Nick Hurd, and if it has, it’s not been taken.

To start with the minister, who always comes across to me as thoughtful and progressively minded. This impression was underlined when he introduced a seminar I attended earlier this week at the Cabinet Office.

The big issue, he told a room of two dozen or so Big Society thinkers and practitioners, is how we ensure that handing more power to communities does not exacerbate social inequality.

This is important. Take one example – mine, not the ministers – well-off people live longer, so in middle class communities there are lots of skilled and healthy retired people (the bedrock of community activism) while in poor communities there are very few.

The topic was right and it is encouraging to see a vital and difficult issue (which I have mentioned before in this blog) being picked up. But I’m afraid the good news ends there. For what followed was a meeting in which each person took it in turn to share some combination of (a) extolling the virtues of their own charity (b) telling us about the wonderful work of Mrs Muggins who has single-handedly transformed her council estate from violent chaos to a communitarian paradise (c) and holding forth on their own pet theory about community mobilisation (in case I sound overly critical, I did exactly the same when it came to my turn).

I’m not saying there weren’t good examples – some very good – and intelligent points, but overall the whole thing was about as robust as a tissue paper suspension bridge and about as illuminating as reflective jacket in a coal hole.

What was missing? First, some kind of structure for the conversation, identifying key issues and then exploring them in turn; second, any evidence of the current problem and its nature and causes; third, any credible account of how the Coalition intends to address the issue, with perhaps some policy options and dilemmas; fourth, any quantifiable aspiration of what the Government would like to achieve, in relation to which they might even one day be held accountable.   

Now, such meandering anecdotalism is fine for a radio phone–in or for a panel event (like the one I spoke at last week with Jesse Norman), but it won’t do from a Government that claims its big idea as a justification for some pretty tough decisions and as the foundation for a better future.

A large local authority should aim higher too. So, whilst there is plenty to admire in ‘Good for Essex’ the Council council’s ‘Big Society prospectus’ here again there is complete reliance on description and a total absence of analysis.

What is there to dislike about the ‘Essex County council employee volunteering service’, ‘our support for police neighbourhood action panels’, ‘our work to inspire ideas amongst communities’, ‘the work of stroke support partners’  or any other of the fifty five projects listed in the brochure. But to what does it all add up? Is there more or less support to third sector organisations, is all the support creating a more engaged county and how is this impacting on more basic measures of individual and collective well-being?

Surely these are relevant questions given not only the general context of cuts and austerity, but the overwhelming evidence that the last few decades have seen, on the one hand, little or no change in rates of volunteering and philanthropy and, on the other, a continually worsening regressive social gradient in all forms of engagement?  

I have said in the past that the Big Society thesis is – to use a disparaging term used by economists – ‘not good enough to be wrong’. This means it doesn’t even assert something which could be proven to be false, let alone something which could be shown to be true.

It may be fair enough that the Coalition is trying to get rid of targets and most forms of social measurement, for example, the citizenship and place surveys which could actually have told us what was happening to community engagement. There were far too many targets under the last Government and if services are being cut who is going to say a survey is a priority? But if intelligent Government ministers and effective local authorities ask us to judge the Big Society on such flimsy evidence it will just become harder and harder for those of us who still see merit in the project to defend it.



  • Julian Dobson

    Spot on.

    Last week Our Society, the learning and exchange network that has followed and critiqued many of the big society developments, held a ‘big society reality check’ at a community centre in west London.

    Five key tests of the big society emerged:
    – will the government implement policies that match its rhetoric and genuinely place power in the hands of ordinary people – to own and manage social housing, for example?
    – will government, central and local, support proven relationship-based approaches to community development as pioneered by the likes of Community Links in east London?
    – will contracts to run and deliver public services move power from those who already have it (plcs and big contractors, for example) to those who do not?
    – will government, central and local, identify and build on the best of what is already taking place in our poorest communities?
    – will the values of the big society match the rhetoric? Will policies build on respect for people who do not have a seat at the table, a readiness to listen to the voiceless and powerless, and a shift from the paternalistic, ‘we know best’ approaches we have seen so far?

    In all these, as Matthew points out, evidence matters. Not just a little – it matters a lot. And the removal of the means of generating and presenting that evidence matters a lot too.

  • Nik Hilton

    Big Society needs a focus. I think it’s supposed to be about community activism but why, what and how?

    Transition Towns focuses on the issue of Peak Oil. This gives the ‘why’.
    Planning systems, green energy, local food growth, car sharing, community networks, etc gives the ‘What’.
    ‘How’ would be what you discuss to enable community empowerment to achieve these goals.

  • Neil McNaughton

    I think there are two reasons why Big Society has failed to make an impact on British society and politics (other than the ones rightly identified in your piece). One is – and this is something I hear time and again – is that it already exists and always has. Two is that its is poorly named . It should be ‘small society’, something Americans would instantly recognise. Third is something that is referred to in your piece; it only really exists with any social force in places where there are sufficient people with enough time, expertise, financial means and a great enough stake in their own community. In more deprived areas the will may exist but the means do not. Therefore, as has been pointed out time and time again, in these ‘difficult’ locations there has to be considerable help from the state. That is clearly not going to happen for some time to come so the project is either irrelevant (because it is already happening) or impractical (because the wherewithall is missing).

    I’m afraid all this talk of Big Society is masking a more fundamental problem (and here ‘Big Society’ is a more appropriate description) which was well recognised by Gordon Brown. That is the breakdown of the wider civc culture and the growing collapse of a belief that people have a stake in society as a whole, not just their own community. This has given rise to political apathy and cynicism, tax aversion, opposition to welfare schemes among the better off and growing social unrest. 50 years ago the American social scietists Almond and Verba observed that Britain displayed a relatively strong civil culture. What would they think today ?

  • David Wilcox

    I see that Conservative HQ now has a Twitter account @YourBigSociety: “YourBigSociety is all about you and your Big Society. Sharing news, links, thoughts and examples about the UK’s Big Society, from Conservative Party HQ”. Maybe evaluation is up to us too.

  • Helen Jeffrey

    I have been thinking recently around the idea of Community-Led Data-Driven Decision Making, really as a direct result of working on a report I wrote in January based on one of the BDUK broadband pilots that is also a Big Society Vanguard area. Generating concrete outcomes from community enthusiasm, energy and engagement would be a very useful thing.

    With the development of open-data and linked-data, hack days aimed at making data useful and accessible, and the potential of data-surgeries (similar to the popular social media surgeries) it seems the possibilities are evolving – must be good.

  • Stian Westlake

    Yes – the debate on the Big Society will be all the better for more evidence.

    It doesn’t help that the social sector is on the whole less well monitored and recorded than businesses or the government – we don’t have the equivalent of an Intergovernmental Business Records Database or an Institute for Fiscal Studies. Kudos to people like NCVO, ESRC’s TSRC and New Philanthropy Capital who are working to address this.

    We at NESTA made a small contribution yesterday by publishing two large evidence-rich pieces of research on social finance: looking at a) the need for social finance and b) investors’ willingness to put their savings into it. Lots of crunchy lessons for the Big Society Bank. More here:

  • David Wilcox

    Behind my slightly frivolous reference to the Conservative HQ @YourBigSociety was a point now highlighted by Stian, Helen and others: there are many programmes and evaluations that Big Society evangelists would applaud.
    But by pasting Big Society over everything possible, and reinforcing with YourBigSociety, the debate gets elevated to what is Big Society and how do we know if it is succeeding. The brand continues to get in the way.
    What presentational advice should a brave adviser be giving to Nick Hurd?

  • Fiona Beddoes-Jones

    There are two things that sadden me about Matthew’s post. Firstly, that the Cabinet Office probably think that the seminar was both excellent and effective; despite it’s obvious flaws of planning and outcomes.

    Secondly, that we, as taxpayers, are paying for it, and in more ways than the obvious financial one.