“The tragedy is that the government has adopted a laissez-faire approach to the delivery of the big society. It has claimed that if the state stepped back, and social enterprise was incentivised (not least by the “Big Society Bank”), then the civic sector would grow itself – and there is no doubt that, in some parts, that will be true. But there is no civic infrastructure on which to base this innovation. It required a retail offering – every town or village or locality should have had its own big society platform where people could go for advice and input, and where the new powers in the Localism Bill could be explained and augmented with civic expertise, training in social entrepreneurship and the delivery of public service.”
This a quote from a lengthy piece in the current issue of the New Statesman by Philip Blond, author of Red Tory and a leading figure in the movement towards a Big Society. In the week of the Conservative party conference, Blond outlines his concerns about the direction of the government’s flagship project. The biggest of them, as illustrated by the above quote, is that the government isn’t actually doing anything much to the Big Society happen and therefore it is mostly not happening.
Blond is certainly right in saying that the government has not followed the suggestions outlined by his Respublica think tank in their pamphlet The Venture Society, published in partnership with Unltd last year. The pamphlet proposed the creation of local community ‘lablets’ to act as incubators for social entrepreneurs’ ideas and, in doing so, get the Big Society up and running in local communities. This proposal, if taken up, would have led to the creation of a sizable part of the civic infrastructure that Blond believes is now lacking. He returns to the idea with the ‘retail offering’ mentioned above.
It obviously isn’t true that there is literally no civic infrastructure in place to support social innovation. The New Labour government put a lot of money into expanding the work of existing local and national infrastructure organisations, and – in the case of social enterprise specifically – into creating some new ones.
It’s not that Blond has failed to notice that many support services for people hoping to start or develop social ventures are, at least in theory, available in most local areas. It’s that he feels these existing services aren’t fit for purpose. My guess is that two of the biggest reasons for this are that (a) while, for example, local Councils for Voluntary Services, can give advice and support they usually don’t give out money to support new social ventures and (b) many of the existing infrastructure organisations don’t entirely support the Big Society agenda (I’m not necessarily suggesting that they should do).
While he might like to see the idea move beyond party politics, for Phillip Blond Big Society is a political project and it’s a political project that can only gain momentum through an investment of cash. While others within the Conservative Party may support the idea – with varying levels of enthusiasm – on the basis that it amounts to an endorsement of the good work that continues to take place when state provision and/or state funding is withdrawn, Blond sees Big Society as an active agenda. That agenda may well deliver signinifcant savings in public spending in the long-term but the short term aim is to change the way that people interact with the state and each other.
Ultimately, the biggest challenge for Blond’s active Big Society vision – as opposed to the alternative vision that primarily involves creating a massive gap and hoping new and existing community groups will fill it – is that it needs thousands, if not millions of people to actively buy into it. Blond is clearly right that the only way that this can possibly happen to a meaningful extent on a national scale is if structures and/or significant new funding for existing infrastructure organisations is put in place to generate engagment.
So, for example, anyone who might be inspired to take part in community action as a result of the new powers in the Localism Bill, would need to have have some of finding out about them that didn’t entail significant existing involvement in community activities (or working for a thinktank).
It seem logical that Community Organisers might fulfil part of that role and the fact that Blond’s article fails to mention the programme at all seems strange but clearly funding the work of 500 people for a year is some way short of the investment that an active approach to the Big Society would require. Overall, it seems that, in terms of the Big Society agenda as conceived by Philip Blond, the question of whether it will work is likely to go unanswered unless the government can be persuaded to make a serious, funded attempt at testing the hypothesis.