In my opinion Big Society is one of the most inspiring governmental initiatives … where has it gone?
I have been a fan from the beginning – at its core I saw the potential for this powerful idea to disrupt and transform some of the imbalances in society that have accidentally become self-generating, arising as they have from genuinely well-meaning, but frequently out-of-date approaches to solving complex, interrelated problems.
I have seen Big Society as an energising concept that could help regular citizens see the potential of deploying their own ideas, energies and talents to making and shaping where they live, moving away from viewing their immediate physical and social environments as deliverables, external to their own agency and resourcefulness.
But sadly, there is very little of the original enthusiasm coming from No10 currently. And this seems counter to my experiences of working and talking with local government, with local councillors and with people working in central government departments. Even in recent weeks I have had several contacts with central government departments and I have seen only a strong commitment to trying to understand and deliver the goals of the Big Society agenda. The civil service has been ‘on message’ but have also demonstrated a deep and genuine dedication to these ideas.
Outside of government even people who are aligned to another party, are fighting fiercely against inequalities or cuts, or are critical of economic policy, would support the underlying principle of helping more people take more control of their lives and communities, and prosper as a result.
The first year after the launch of Big Society generated a huge amount of criticism and debate, but by comparison over the last 12 months the government, and the Prime Minister in particular, has gone quiet about Big Society. This is a great pity and I would like to question, and with others hopefully understand, more of the thinking that has led to this ‘hands off’ approach that has been adopted.
The criticism and debate about Big Society that we had in the first year was pretty disruptive to relationships, but it was urgently needed and incredibly valuable. Professionals working in communities in various roles were forced to examine and compare their practice, including their own roles in relation to the potential of citizens. We blogged, argued, made peace, wrestled with our own work and generally had a period of healthy self and other criticism which has sadly largely disappeared.
Only to replaced by, and please do argue with me about this description, a general sense of everyone ‘just getting on with it’. Pretty much as we would have been ‘getting on with it’ had the words Big and Society never been strung together. It has not caught fire in the general population in any meaningful way that I can see?
So why has David Cameron gone so quiet on Big Society? Was it a PR smoke screen for cuts as many thought it was? If so the government has never been more in need of smoke or distraction, with an announcement today of a double dip recession. If we caste our cynicism aside for a moment, perhaps the PM has been too busy with more important things such as the economy or international affairs to be paying attention to what others would describe as his ‘pet project’.
Personally I have been convinced that David Cameron is really dedicated to the Big Society idea and it’s potential. So below are some of the potential reasons that could be the source of the ‘hands off’ approach currently being adopted.
1. Too much criticism?
It’s pretty hard to take and there was a lot of it. Especially after launching BS in such a clumsy way originally, looking strikingly as it did like a governmental attempt to claim credit for much hard work being done for many years in communities and the voluntary sector. They launched an umbrella when what they needed was a platform. Is a ‘hands off’ approach really just a form of ‘keeping your head down’ instead?
2. Bad advice?
The role of government in supporting the Big Society is still something of a mystery. It is not as if previous governments haven’t attempted something similar. It is very difficult to understand in any sophisticated way how much stimulation, scaffolding and support to give communities when they are still learning to do new things in new ways (neighbourliness aside). But it appears that these subtle mechanisms are not being determined through detailed evaluation or systematic action research. Instead a rather painful myth seems to have emerged, one that conveniently requires neither money nor action. It’s the ‘get out of the way’ myth. The assumption being that Big Society, could and would become a ‘movement’, requiring nothing but an initial round of fire setting and a benign and general blessing. You get out of the way of an out of control train - and I don't see one.
3. Too much focus on professionals?
I imagine it is easy to hear professionals louder than regular people … but a year ago people I met around the country were talking about Big Society, now they aren’t. (To be honest, no one is talking about Big Society – including professionals) Big Society, if it happens at all, will be done by spreading the ideas widely, systematically and strategically to the millions of people who currently have had little or no exposure to some of the amazing ideas emerging of citizen-led change.
4. “We are quietly working behind the scenes to build BS infrastructure”?
Fair enough. We have seen the launch of the Big Society Capital this month - £600m of unused cash in bank accounts. Inspired. But what else … what are we waiting for? Some rather expensive initiatives appear to be failing - perhaps we should collaborate somehow to support them ...?
5. The ‘inevitable’ assumption?
Although we have noticed a surge in citizen-led activity world-wide I think this type of activity is vulnerable, vulnerable to a hard recession, extreme politics, competition, unemployment, loss of optimism, hyperactivism ... things that increase the need for Big Society Thinking… but may destroy the fragile conditions under which communities will come together positively to collaborate and create.
The optimistic view of the future that Big Society has tried to promote, one where we are more connected to our neighbours, where we are more productive and socially aware, where this emergent and cultivated connection and trust might start to work on serious social problems such as crime, unemployment, truancy, depression, isolation … This view is important and worthy of protection and whether we like the politicians of the moment or not, I think we need all our politicians to strive for this type of collaborative vision of the future and to help its citizens achieve it, not because the politicians insist on it, but because we do.
Rarely has an idea sparked so much discussion and debate... love it or hate it.
I like Big Society and I would like it back.
Responding post: Big Society killed by its contradictions by David Floyd