Big questions won’t go away

It caused unnecessary resentment among those in the Labour Party and the voluntary sector who quite justifiably felt that they had been successfully fostering a big society for decades. And people mistook it for a policy agenda, building conferences and seminars around it only to find there wasn’t much to chew on.

That’s Third Sector editor, Stephen Cook, isolating some of the key factors as he uses latest editorial to part-suggest, part-announce the beginning of the end of the Big Society. He may be partly right. If the aim of using the phrase Big Society was, to some extent, to detoxify the Tory brand by illustrating that the party had moved beyond Mrs Thatcher’s ‘no such thing as’, it’s failed. In fact, by drawing (particularly) volunteer-led community activity under the Big Society umbrella, the incoming government may even have succeeded in putting some people off getting involved due to the negative political associations.

Big Society adviser Lord Nat Wei has come and gone, leaving behind some phenomenally creaky metaphors and the more instructive message that it’s very hard for working age people to work full time on a voluntary basis. Maybe it’s not surprising that council leaders are sceptical but even Red Tory, Phillip Blond, currently believes that the flagship idea is heading for the rocks unless the government does more to actually make it happen.

The problem with the main objections to the Big Society concept, which Stephen Cook sums up well in his editorial, is that they’re at least partly wrong and completely practically irrelevant. In the case of the voluntary sector, the ‘we’re doing the Big Society already’ argument is trite and more than a bit smug. That’s not to say that there aren’t any organisations in voluntary sector who are (and have been for a long time) fulfilling the one sentence Big Society objective of ‘helping people to come together to improve their own lives’ but the assumption that this is a quintessential characteristic of being a voluntary sector organisation is a big mistake.

There are plenty of large charities that have all the stultifying bureaucracy of local council but without the democratic accountability. There are plenty of small community organisations that claim to represent the interests of particular group of people but in fact represent the interests of a couple of opinionated individuals and a handful of their closest friends and family members.

That’s not to say that these organisations don’t do some good but the Big Society agenda is as much a challenge to them as it is to the public sector. Unfortunately, it’s also a challenge to the large numbers of third sector organisations that deliver services that clearly do help people come together to improve their own lives but do so too expensively to be sustainable in the current climate. This reality makes the ‘not much to chew on’ point particularly important and particularly incorrect. If anything, the problem with the Big Society agenda so far is that there’s too much to it.

Partly for demographic reasons, partly for (hopefully relatively short term) economic reasons, we face the massive problem of an increase in need combined with a decrease in resources. This comes at the end of a period in which the New Labour government oversaw a major expansion both in directly provided public services and public services delivered by the voluntary sector but paid for buy the state. Now there’s a lot less money for both and that would’ve been the case whoever had won the 2010 general election.

This calls for some serious thinking about what people who use state-funded and partially state-funded services want and need, and the role of both the state and third sector organisations either in delivering services or helping groups of people to do things for themselves. That thinking doesn’t necessarily have to take place under the banner of Big Society but ditching the Big Society won’t make the big questions go away.


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6 responses to “Big questions won’t go away

  1. Sure it’s failed as a branding exercise because when it comes down to the doing, it’s proven to be selective in its support. My experience of the project itself, Big Society Network and Your Square Mile for example is to have volunteered to participate and be declined. Under New Labour there were similar experiences as is typical where a favoured elite are involved.

    Straying a little into the support of media, I can show a classic example today from the Guardian network for sustainable business.

    It concerns the work we did with Sumy State University and their Economics for Ecology conferences on the subject of sustainable economics as an alternative to traditional capitalism. Entirely funded by us.

    As you may see from the two most recent blog articles, describing it violates their standards and earns us censorship and blocks participation in any of the Guardian commentary.


  2. One dimension of government policy associated with Big Society is the Localism Bill which is now with the House of Lords. Helping people help themselves, by creating an empowering local economic environment is where we’ve been leading and this is where the case for sustainable local economies comes in.
    There’s a key role for the self-sustaining social enterprise here imo, as the driver for community re-investment.


  3. Hi D another good blog – you’re one of the few people I read. There is an interesting set of ideas and literature around ‘coproduced’ services which link to the stuff you’re raising here, including your point at the end about need and resources. 2020 Public Services Commission, NESTA and others very busy in this space. This is an altogether more intelligent conversation than the one we often witness going on around BS which as you point out is often missing big points or simply overpoliticised.


  4. Beanbags admin


    You’re right. Don’t know much about 2020 Public Services Commission – it’s an RSA initiative, isn’t it? – but aware of the stuff NESTA, NEF and others are doing on co-production.

    I think a challenge at the moment is to move from discussion about co-production (and related issues) amongst people with specific enthusiasm for co-production to discussions about how new approaches can be used in mainstream service delivery.

    Also, though, there’s a need for people who are against the idea of the state just withdrawing and leaving people to make the best of things to suggest positive alternatives that aren’t just ‘do less cutting’.


  5. You should also read about the Great Transition on the NEF site, David. It seems to cover the same territory as the work on Economics for Ecology I describe above on the issue of Economics in Transition. The MA course to be run at Schumacher college is called Economics for Transition.

    In the Guardian social enterprise network yesterday you may have read the claim by Geof Cox that none have responded to the economic crisis. and he’s alleged to be a consultant working in Eastern Europe.

    I can’t respond because the sustainable business network is still burning our books.


  6. As it turns out the Guardian conversation is lead in to promote micro enterprise development and localism. This is what P-CED took to Tomsk in 1999 and brought to the UK in 2004.

    There’s a bigger issue however which is indicated by one of the last statements my colleague made when he added this to the end of the article on his alternative to capitalism, I offered the Guardian:

    “barriers are often found in various organizations who are supposed to be trying to fix the problem, but have vested interests in direct conflict with achieving actual solutions.”

    It was Vern Hughes who focussed my attention on social enterprise deferring to corporations and led me to ask whether it was also avoiding conflict with oligarchic greed.

    For example, Ukraine where we delivered our paper on ‘microeconomic development and social enterprise’ are to receive 600 million euros as part of the EU Eastern Partnership. Lord Mandelson, according to the Daily Mail had been sponsored by a leading mogul to advocate for Ukraine and the article, which refers to links with organised crime has been pulled from their website. We also know this same mogul has raised super injunctions in our courts to block investigative journalists.

    With a social enterprise proposal on the table for the last 5 years, aligned with activism over organised crime which profits from vulnerable children, we’re displaced by a consortium of government and big business and no social objective. They invite partners but refuse to respond to us.

    The activist has already been buried along with his social objective and a good way to sweep this under the carpet is to claim that it never happened, that nobody in social enterprise ever took a stand against greed. :



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