Apparently David Cameron has relaunched The Big Society again. While, according to the Big Society Commission, 78% of adults are confused about what Big Society means, there are no reported figures for the percentage of us who can’t tell the difference between the PM relaunching the idea as opposed to just making another speech about it.
If Big Society is, in fact, being relaunched again, it’s a bit difficult to see why. In a situation where lots of people have either lost their jobs, or are about to lose their jobs, and wages – should you be lucky enough to still be receiving some – are worth less month-on-month, the Prime Minister and leading party of government are not significantly less popular now than they were at the time of the general election last year.
And indifference to political big ideas is not a new thing. As far as I remember, there wasn’t a point in the 1990s when football fans’ barracking of referees was regularly interspersed with chants of: “We’re on the third way with Tony Giddens’ army, we’re all going to reinvigorate the supply side of the economy”.
The big problem for the government is not that most people are not reading Jesse Norman‘s (in my view pretty good) good book on Big Society. The big problem for the government is that they appear to have no meaningful response to the practical reality that lots of the organisations that might take responsibility for supporting the most vulnerable people in society if a shrinking public sector cannot do so are going out of business.
Lewis is also correct about the importance of ‘Good relationships with commissioners’ for civil society organisations but the value of being ‘contract ready’ is highly dependent on contract being available for your organisation to bid for. It may or may not be a good thing for new (or existing) social enterprises to bid for contracts to dish out parking tickets based on delivering added value to the community but this does not solve the problem of lack of funds for social care.
Cameron and Big Society-related ministers have seriously damaged their brand by focusing too heavily on volunteering. Volunteering as a miraculous substitute for paid-for public service delivery fulfils the same role for politicians that metal detectors and pyramid schemes fulfill for ordinary citizens. It’s the hope of easy money, the little bit of too-good-to-be-truth that everyone needs to believe in for a few minutes a week but no one should believe for more than a few minutes a week.
Volunteering is a social good but it’s a different kind of social good to paid public service delivery. The problem, unsolved by Big Society thinking, is how the retreat of the state – which is, to some extent, inevitable – can be managed in a way that doesn’t hit the worst off hardest. As Social Enterprise London’s Allison Ogden-Newton points out, you can’t run a country like a bring and buy sale and, as Julian Dobson illustrates more succinctly than opposition politicians have so far been able to:
“… whether you’re a humble volunteer or a not-so-humble philanthropist, the same rule applies: you tend to give your time and your money to causes you support, not causes other people would like you to support. That’s why ordinary people tend to give more money to the RSPCA than to asylum seekers.”
Opponents of The Big Society are missing the point when they describe the idea a fig leaf for cuts. I see no evidence that government has either misled people about its intention to make cuts or lacks sincerity in its desire for increased community activity. The problem is that The Big Society – or, at least, the current package that backs it up – does not answer the questions posed by the effects of cuts on people’s lives.
Social entrepreneurs may or may not be some of the right people to rise to the challenge of meeting growing social needs with decreasing resources – along with other voluntary sector groups and people who use services – but a good first step towards meeting that challenge would be a bit more realism about what has been there that is going or has gone.