A Big Society for all segments of society?

Last week David Cameron spoke about the Big Society and talked about the pressing need for it in terms of the challenges government currently faces:

“We’ve got the biggest budget deficit in the G20. And over the past decade, many of our most pressing social problems got worse, not better.It’s time for something different, something bold – something that doesn’t just pour money down the throat of wasteful, top-down government schemes.”

The danger with this narrative is that it is possible that the Big Society will be seen simply as a tool to deliver the financial reductions within Central and Local Government and the wider public sector in much the same way as 80’s style privatisation was seen by many as a tool to purely achieve certain financial reductions. The Big Society might possibly come across as a more humane approach than that, but nevertheless it faced the danger of being seen as that new tool.

Why was that a danger?

Some of course would hold values where change along these lines would be seen as a positive thing. However we should also remember (see previous blog postings here) that for many this change would be seen as a threat to their values. Thus the danger exists that a potentially consensual policy could be seen as extremely divisive.

To be fair on David Cameron, his speech was mainly focused on decentralisation, which along with transparency and effectively targeted social finance, was one of three tools he saw as helping to deliver the Big Society.

However this week Decentralisation Minister Greg Clark added a new dimension to the Big Society and it was very important how he interpreted it. He said:

“Last week, in Liverpool, David Cameron unpacked this basic idea. The Big Society, he said, consists of three strands: Firstly, public sector reform. Secondly, community empowerment.And thirdly, philanthropic action.

“Though these strands are intertwined, they are also distinct: The first is about what the state can do for us.The second is about what we can do for ourselves. And the third is about what we can do for others.

“All three are essential to the Big Society.”

This is welcome news. From work we have done with local authorities we have identified three broad values sets which will respond in different ways to both efficiencies and to the challenges of the Big Society. Compare Greg Clark’s comment above with what we said in our blog posting on the subject on 26 May.

Greg Clark in his speech then put some meat on the bones of the three strands:

“For instance, public services can either be delivered in a way that increases dependency and undermines pro-social behaviour, or the state can intervene in order to strengthen the ability of people to look after themselves and others.

“Alongside the traditional public services, we also need a much clearer concept of communities of shared interest, which act together in their own way to achieve those interests. Local councils are an obvious example, but there are many more beyond the state, including voluntary organisations, faith communities, friendly societies, co-operatives and social enterprises. The more we get away from the idea of a single source of help, delivered by a unitary state, ruling over a monolithic public sector, the closer we will get to a Big Society.

Finally there is the third strand, which is the grace of undiluted altruism – as delivered by charities, social enterprises, volunteers and givers of all descriptions. This is the purest expression of the Big Society, and so in our enthusiasm to reform our public services and empower strong communities, it is vital that we don’t overlook the blessing of selfless philanthropy.”

In the 1980’s a Minister might have told people to simply “get on their bike” to look for work, but in doing so would have only really spoken to the needs, values and emotions of about one in three of the electorate and in many cases that speech would have been anathema to the values of others.

Now today we see a Minister speak about the Big Society in terms that a wider range of  values segments in society might just buy into.

Greg Clark also talked about the need for self-organisation and, even if one were to disagree with some of the politically ideological points he makes early in his speech, his critique of what might have happened with a centrally planned Grameen Bank was sadly very accurate. Last week David Cameron announced four Vanguard authorities: Eden Valley in Cumbria, Windsor and Maidenhead, Sutton and Liverpool. Let us hope that decentralisation truly allows them to experiment with new ideas. As someone who is a resident of one of those authorities and a former local Councillor of it too, I look forward to writing further as to how those flexibilities develop.

What was impressive was his recognition, not just of the different values of people, but also of the different values of organisations, when it came to the diffusion of innovations; and that people and organisations would therefore adapt in various different ways:

“But ultimately, and by definition, the success of decentralisation depends on local action. Indeed, upon the initiative of some of you in this room today.Some of you will be pioneers. Others, just as importantly, will be inspired imitators, shopping around for the best new ideas and customising them for local use.”

There is a lot of work to do to build a variety of approaches to delivering a Big Society that all could be comfortable with, but with this speech we see a recognition there is a need to win wide buy-in to the concept, not just in specific communities, but across a wide range of different values.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for the Campaign Company


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