Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Investing in the Big Society

The Big Society idea has been under scrutiny & challenge ever since it began. Most recently Liverpool City Council have withdrawn their involvement in being one of the four pilot areas for the idea. (BBC news link here). Just a day ago, the outgoing head of the Community Service Volunteers (Dame Elisabeth Hoodless) voiced her concerns about how cuts are destroying the Big Society idea (BBC news link here).

As a consequence I have been following Lord Nat Wei's blog with interest - he is the Big Society 'Csar' who has been promoting the idea from its early beginning. This morning, I was prompted by his most recent post entitled: Local Authorities and Big Society in the Age of Austerity (link here) to respond.

Below is what I have posted on his site - although as of now it is yet to appear:

If the Big Society is about anything, it must be about inclusiveness and bringing people from outside the tent into the inside. In this respect, your partisan opening comment of ‘Labour’s huge deficit’ does you no favours. If anything calling it simply ‘the huge deficit’ would help to build some bridges which the Big Society idea badly needs right now.

I do like and appreciate the Big Society concept, by the way. But I am in this debate as a critical friend as well as advocate. Politics and economics aside, if the Big Society can do anything to mitigate the public service cuts which are being made, then I support it wholeheartedly.

Where I am very concerned is where the Big Society is being invoked, without trial, test or evaluation, as the way in which severe cuts will not really be felt. This is what is happening in Buckinghamshire at the moment where the County Council is slashing (disproportionately) the youth service budget. (See ‘Keep the spirit of Big Society alive’). As far as I can see, they are not investing in the kinds of capacity building you outline. The likelihood is that without enough structures in place, there will be less volunteering in the future, not more.

Certainly the best public services have been engaging their citizens/customers/users/clients for some while – long before the ‘Big Society’ existed as a concept. It is certainly something I have been talking about for many years. (At this event, I talked about the evidence based citizenship: http://tinyurl.com/sureypaagm2005 and there more on my blogs at: http://jonharveyassociates.blogspot.com/2009/05/empowered-citizenship.html and here in the context of income generation: http://smallcreativeideas.blogspot.com/2009/04/thinking-about-income-generation.html) So getting the users of a service to do more while saving resources being spent is old – as old as when we began filling our own fuel tanks at filling stations, at least.

Yes, there is a great need to get more users/citizens/customers involved in picking up the litter (to use your example – although better not to drop it in the first place!), and there are huge cultural impediments within local authorities towards doing this more (not least the risk averse culture fuelled by the ‘no win/no fee’ lawyers hanging around on street corners). But all of this will not happen by magic or by merely hoping that the invisible hand of the social market place will result in volunteers and philanthropists rushing into the vacuum left by the public service cutbacks.

Certainly core costs can be reduced further and perhaps part time working could be a way ahead. I don’t know if any councils or other public service agencies are considering this. However, when commercial firms did this to survive the recession, as you cite, they did this as their order books were down. There was less demand on their services or products. The comparison to public services does not work in quite the same way unless you are suggesting that the police say to their public that they are going on short working so please could crimes now not be committed between the hours of 2 and 6 o’clock in the morning....?

Partnerships are also not new. As you know most local authorities have been developing their compacts with their local third sector agencies and have been looking to extend partnership arrangements with them over many years. But to repeat... this requires investment and indeed time. The time is critical as without it trust cannot develop. As you well know, partnerships do not work without trust. Is there the time to develop further trusting partnerships now before the cutbacks begin to really bite?

In sum, yes there is a need to be pragmatic and tenacious about making the Big Society work and I am not in the group of people who are urgently looking for it to fail (from both the right and left of the spectrum). My overriding concern is that the investments in Big Society development are not being bold or strategic enough. There is insufficient recognition that the transition to a Bigger Society and a Smaller Government is one that cannot simply happen. Shrewd investment and good local leadership will be critical

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