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Some things I hope the Big Society isn’t

October 13, 2010

OK – I’ve said I want to stick to the doing and not do too much philosophising, and I’m going to stick to that. But there’s so much to read that, occasionally, you can’t help but be prodded into a response. Which means that it’s more often negative than positive. I’m going to quickly sketch out a few principles and then maybe they’ll stand for other occasions.

Here are some versions of the Big Society I don’t agree with:

  1. Reduction of the State per se. If I’m right about my version of the Big Society – i.e. changing the way we see our role in society – most simply and perhaps first in our local community – then there are all sorts of changes which may reduce the ‘turnover’ of formally constituted public bodies and services. But if it’s true it should be a natural outcome of something that is ‘good’ for its own reasons. That shrinkage shouldn’t be the prime mover or objective – otherwise the risk of the Big Society becoming a mere smokescreen is infinitely greater.
  2. Replacing local and national government organisations with (large? formal?) ‘charities’. An organisation is an organisation no matter what the ‘articles of association’. If the fundamentals of our approach to organisations don’t also change… then the function will shape the organisation much more rapidly than the ‘special’ nature of the organisation can change the function. As a contingent matter of transformation, a voluntary organisation in the first flush of youth may be a very valuable catalyst for challenging assumptions about what gets done and why – but a ‘mature’ voluntary organisation with a long-standing axe to grind and its own accumulation of vested interests will likely just take on the same organisational arthritis of a local authority or an ancient quango.
  3. Outsourcing. See all of point ‘2.’ above and then add the fact that somebody has to pay shareholders. Also take account of the fact that any procurement processes which adequately reflect the complexities and uncertainties of formally defined public sector functions inevitably create a bias in favour of very large businesses – because these can afford to maintain standing armies of people to write bids (more people to then pay out of the service charges of course) and who become good at bidding rather than necessarily at delivering. Small, innovative businesses with novel motivations tend to be squeezed out by big businesses who can go toe to toe with procurement departments.
  4. “Getting individuals and communities to do more for themselves” – a phrase which I think Suffolk County Council used to preface their apparent ‘outsource everything’ strategy. Actually – I might even accept “getting communities to do more for themselves” except that this proves to be meaningless… because depending on where you set the boundary of the “community” the work of a Council just is the formal business of a community doing things for itself, it just happens to be a County-sized community. I think the statement relies on a shared mental picture amongst sympathetic listeners  that a ‘community’ is this  ‘small enough’ village, or chunk of picturesquely embattled urban landscape, not to be in direct competition with the Council. And “Getting individuals to do more for themselves” is just plain wrong as an objective for the Big Society itself. “Getting individuals to do more for themselves” may be a helpful adjunct but, on a grand scale, it is antithetical to the notion of Society,… or even to the notion of a market for that matter. When I sell my services to another party, I may be being self-reliant in some way but I’m also doing something for someone else.
  5. All and only about “services”. It’s the concept of “services” that does us two big dis-services [pun intended]. Firstly it keeps us in this transactional and functional way of thinking – that this is about jobs that need doing. Secondly, and for this reason, it fragments the doing – breaking it down into law and order, welfare, health, education, environment… as though we all lived lives that were conveniently partitioned into these things. And if the Big Society is just about these services, if the Big Society is about how we deliver them, if the Big Society is about the historical menu of services divided up in the ways they currently happen to be, then it instantly abandons everything that lies in the gaps between, and it instantly disqualifies new, creative, ways of thinking about our lives that transcend, blur and blend these distinctions.

So what have I left us? What is this peculiar, seemingly personal, brand of Big Society that avoids all those pitfalls, sacrifices all those references to current practical challenges, and still manages to be in any way useful?

I think it is “People doing more for each other” and “People doing more for themselves together”.

I can see versions of this operating at a distance, amongst communities of interest and overlapping personal networks. I also recognise things which need to be decided and operated at a national level. But I think that if a coherent version of The Big Society is to have a chance of emerging it should first be tested on a local level, simply because some of the most important forces and instincts involved operate naturally on a face-to-face level, in your immediate physical environment. Similarly, the easiest ways to dismiss the idea operate at levels of remoteness, generalisation and abstraction.

I also believe that this is not about changing people. If I did I would pack in right now. I believe that it is about tapping in to those instincts and needs that people already have, and about removing some of the obstacles, reasons and excuses that sustain less satisfying behaviour.

I don’t even like the use of the term ‘volunteering’ in this context – even though I am somewhere between respect and awe for what people achieve every day in roles that are unpaid and unimposed. That’s because, for many, ‘volunteering’ implies duty, sacrifice, paying your dues, giving something up in order to be virtuous… even though this may lead to thanks and acknowledgement.

To the contrary, I believe that many of us suffer some degree of impoverishment in our lives which results from not having the opportunity (time, access, permission, knowledge, support) to get involved in more communal activities and to use our strengths to the benefit of others. The Big Society should be fuelled by the fact that if more of us were able to do more of this, there would be at least three benefits which don’t look much like self-sacrifice and therefore don’t need heavy marketing.

  1. The ‘givers’ would just feel better, more complete, more fulfilled – and would discover avenues for personal development that don’t exist in other parts of their lives.
  2. With more such ‘givers’ the probability that each of them would also become a ‘receiver’ increases.
  3. Communities, as a whole, would just get ‘better’ because of the material and psychological effects of all those extra interactions – not least because of what happens in the gaps between “services” when people choose and grow these activities from the ground up.

It’s still a bit abstract. It needs lots and lots of chances, examples, failures in order to become concrete. I’m sure a lot of those examples exist out there in community development and long-established projects… the Big Society didn’t just spring into existence earlier this year. But that’s OK just now – this abstraction – because this post is my self-indulgent bit of once and for all philosophy.

So, for me: The Big Society is about finding or creating more ways in which people can do more for each other (or for themselves-together) in a way which, ideally, would reduce to some degree the hours that they need to work in order to fund that same ‘doing’ via taxation, in turn allowing them to spend more time on diverse activities which enrich their own lives and those of their neighbours, friends, families. The only real act of faith this requires is a belief in the net positive balance of underlying human nature, when the environment permits, and especially when face to face with real individuals rather than stereotypes.

If that was right, what should The Big Society be for the purposes of politics and public administration? It should be an agenda through which the ‘government of the day’:

  1. Creates the means for people to act on a community level – networks, rights, networks, support, networks, examples, networks, templates, knowledge sharing and of course,,, networks. [For some reason that looks banal – it probably lacks something like the provision of ‘platform’ for inspiring charismatic practitioners, and the popular, emotive, celebration of successes.]
  2. Remains resolutely agnostic about the size and cost (and categorisation) of public administration and public services at this level. Neither the shrinkage of the state nor the net reduction of expenditure should be a necessary condition – rather a well-founded hope that they will be a contingent consequence of these changes
  3. Standing ready to offer propositions about when and how this local activity can join up with existing government, civil and 3rd sector organisations – including propositions about how these need to change to accommodate that joining up.
  4. Similarly a story about when and how to accept that something more than the local is necessary/appropriate – and to offer a plausible story about how the necessary aggregation of decision making and management at these levels can be achieved without just throwing all the real power back to elected party politicians, the executive as we know it, and permanent officials.
  5. Sufficient patience to allow the bottom up examples to emerge, evolve, spread, die out, before seeking to declare the total success, or otherwise, of the Big Society model.
  6. In order to make 5. possible, demonstrate an unprecedented suppression of party political tribalism around the concept – having ‘our’ version and ‘their’ version, at national party level, that have to be glorified and vilified by turns. Let alone the quasi-religious mission to identify and claim the origins of the One True Big Society.

Above all – then – the recognition that if this is a real change it will be derived from things which most/many people discover that they already want and need to do (tentatively and maybe suspiciously at first) and not handed down to people as a branch of policy, using old familiar language, dichotomies and mechanisms… or EVEN ‘nudges’.

The message to governments and politicians –          watch, listen, help (on our terms) and adapt.

Right. Back to doing (the day job today as it happens) and an even stronger resolve not to theorise for a bit – even if provoked by stuff I strongly agree with.

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