It’s an interesting paradox that while David Cameron has so far been a politically successful prime minister – if a general election were held today, he’d be likely to get a better result than he achieved at the 2010 general election – he’s been dramatically unsuccessful in securing support for his major philosophical contribution to British politics.
Having recently co-authored a report on the government’s big policy idea, I well understand the feeling of working on a project that started as an in investigation into how The Big Society might work, and ended up focusing heavily on why it hasn’t worked – at least so far. The RSA seem to have found themselves in that position with their new year publication of Beyond the Big Society – Psychological Foundations of Active Citizenship, a report that forms part of their Social Brain programme. The basic premise of the report is that the Big Society is currently failing to gain traction because it is widely viewed as set of politicial policies that people either support or don’t support rather than a programme of cultural transformation that will equip citizens to build a society that’s more socially cohesive and sustainable.
For the report’s authors, the big issue for The Big Society is ‘mental complexity’, which is described as ‘our varied capacity to understand competing motivations and values in ourselves and others, to ‘get things in perspective’, and to act appropriately in uncertain or ambiguous situations‘. On this basis, the key question isn’t whether most people are for The Big Society, against it or unable to underatand what it is – it’s whether we are ‘Big Citizens’, psycholigically equipped to deliver it.
This challenge is not primarily related to specific elements of the current government’s Big Society agenda but to the general desire amongst politicians of all parties to get people more involved in delivering public services and promoting positive social change in local communities. This, the report suggests, calls for a major change in thinking: “Many of the existing considerations about participation seek to answer the motivational question: Are we up for it? But thus far, few have asked a related but very different developmental question: Are we up to it? Perhaps if we focus more on the latter question the former will begin to take care of itself.”
For the report’s authors, the process of cultural change needed to bring about The Big Society – described as a ‘curriculum’ – requires the development of three three key ‘competencies’ – definition – needed to build The Big Society are Autonomy, Responsibility and Solidarity.
This is Autonomy: “Autonomy is a much richer concept than merely doing things oneself, but at its heart is the idea of self-direction and freedom from external coercion. The Big Society is premised on the State, both local and national, not getting in the way of people choosing their ends, or the means to achieve those ends. Autonomy has various definitions, but here it is used to reflect the
psychological implications of subsidiarity, in the sense of taking personal initiative without state interference.”
This is Responsibilty: “… the activities and behaviours embedded within the curriculum of the Big Society require a more nuanced account of responsibility, in which ‘people’ take ownership of tasks that they might previously have assumed to be the responsibility of government, and often do so together with strangers…”
And this is Solidarity: “Solidarity is a hugely complex notion, and there is a large literature on the subject, but it is broadly about integration, about the extent to which we feel we are on ‘common ground’ with and have a sense of mutual commitment with the people with whom we share space, time and resources.”
To some extent the report offers a theoretical angle on the practical work being carried out as part of the government’s existing Community Organisers programme – in that in focuses on how to enable people to deliver the social change they want to deliver in their local area – but it also extends beyond that to begin to focus on the broader challenges of how societies will work as we move away from universal welfare provision.
Clearly more work is needed on ideas for building ‘mental complexity’ in practice beyond the report’s suggestions: “One implication is that community centres should be turned into transformational learning hubs which run training exercises for community leaders. A tool-box of training exercises designed to build mental complexity should be offered to community centres, particularly those already offering adult learning courses.” and “We should also encourage businesses, community organisations and other bodies to form transformational learning consortiums. For instance, businesses should work with local community groups and voluntary organisations to improve the productivity and overall effectiveness of their workforce.”
Ultimately, though, while the challenge this report addresses may not continue to be known as The Big Society, meeting growing needs with diminished state resources is the toughest and most important task facing the current generation of politicians, social entrepreneurs and citizens in general. The is useful contribution to part of the debate.