“In my opinion Big Society is one of the most inspiring governmental initiatives … where has it gone?“
This question is posed by Tessy Britton, beginning a thoughtful blog post on the apparent disappearance of Big Society from the government’s policy agenda. The post, and the reactions to it, are particularly interesting because they provide an insight into the current views of people who can broadly be described as ‘big society enthusiasts’ working in branches of what the current government calls ‘civil society’.
The consensus, broadly speaking, is that while there’s lots of successful activity going on that could fit well under the Big Society banner, Big Society as an idea has not caught on amongst the population of the UK – and is now being sidelined by the Prime Minister and other leading figures in the government.
Britton lists five reasons why she believes the government is now adopting a ‘hands off’ approach to Big Society. I don’t disagree with any of them but it’s an analysis that only really applies to one interpretation of Big Society.
That’s the interpretation that sees Big Society as promoting, in Britton’s words: “The optimistic view of the future… 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 Big Society is about people getting together to do things for themselves and each other. It’s not about replacing public services with altruistic volunteering but with a mixture of co-operation and self-help. It’s the view of Big Society that we (at Social Spider) saw the potential for in the world of mental health in our thinkpiece Better Mental Health in a Bigger Society? (published last year by Mental Health Providers Forum).
But this is only one approach to Big Society. As Simon Teasdale and co. from the Third Sector Research Centre have pointed out, the Conservative Party has at least two strong ideas on what the Big Society involves. One is the community self-help approach promoted by Tessy Britton – supported by Chris White MP in taking forward his Public Services (Social Value) Act – and the other is the view that Big Society is primarily about creating ‘open markets’ in public service delivery and/or withdrawing funding for public services and hoping altruistic volunteers will fill the gap.
Unfortunately, in political terms, while the community self-help approach to Big Society has won the odd battle – the passing of Chris White’s Bill being one example – it’s losing the war. In terms of government’s stated ‘three key parts’ of Big Society – Community Empowerment, Opening Up Public Services and Social Action – there’s only one that public sector agencies have the ability to control (as opposed to encourage).
That’s ‘Opening Up Public Services’. In that area the government quite firmly chosen the ‘free market’ approach to Big Society ahead of the community self-help approach. In terms of major national programmes, such as the Work Programme, they’ve adopted what might charitably be described as an unreconstructed approach to public procurement. The focus has been on large contractors taking on contracts which shift risk off the public balance sheet – and even relatively large charities and social enterprise have struggled to compete with corporate outsourcing giants on these terms.
The Coalition’s attitude to public procurement is not the sole reason why the Big Society idea has run out of steam, and why prominent Big Society projects – such as Your Square Mile – are struggling to make an impact but it is the most important. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether David Cameron or other government ministers genuinely think (the community self-help) Big Society is a great idea if they don’t put their money where their mouth is.
Of course, central government can’t (and shouldn’t attempt to) force local councils and NHS commissioners to give contracts charities, social enterprise and local social businesses. And the Public Services (Social Value) Act is step in the right direction in terms of encouraging that.
It’s also true that:
(a) a community self-help approach to Big Society is about much more than questions around how public services are funded and delivered and
(b) there are plenty of people who just don’t Big Society is a good idea and will never support it.
But the government could have led from front and helped to give Big Society the momentum to succeed. It’s chosen not to do so and, as a result, it may be too late to save Big Society as the label for a set of ideas.
What’s not going anywhere is the need to respond to growing social needs with decreasing resources. The people who want to get on with doing that are still there, at least for the moment, but if Big Society’s dead there’s a gap in the market for a set of ideas to explain what they’re doing and how it can best be supported.