Just how Big is the Big Society?
Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist reportedly said that “anyone who isnât shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” And so it is with the Big Society.
Over the past few weeks, the Institute for Government has been hosting a seminar series on Big Society Public Services along with NESTA and the Design Council.Â The series provided an opportunity to explore what the Big Society means in five different policy areas.
It is fair to say that for each area, from education to criminal justice, the full implications of the Big Society for policy and the management of services are still being worked out. What is already clear is that many of those implications are likely to be profound.
A new relationship
Most people solve most of their problems most of the time without reverting to the state. Families, friends, communities and the marketplace can all help individuals to solve problems with minimal involvement from government.
Even when the government does get involved there is a great deal that can be achieved without the state providing all the funding, assets or people involved in the solution. This switch in emphasis lies at the heart of the Big Society argument and suggests a potentially radical shift in the relationship between citizen and state.
The implication is that individuals and communities must take more responsibility for achieving outcomes that matter to them. They must also be willing to accept a greater share of the risks that were previously held elsewhere.
Central to the Big Society narrative is an enhanced role for civil society including charities, the voluntary sector and social enterprises. Newly formed public sector mutuals would also sit here such as the twelve Pathfinder Mutuals announced earlier this month.
But the romantic view of Burke’s “little platoons” sits uneasily with the demands on such organisations to professionalise and scale-up if they are to successfully work alongside large, private contractors without getting crowded out.
Quantifying social value is difficult, but the Big Society demands that everyone will need to get a lot better at it if we are to make the difficult trade-offs that are likely to be necessary. Add to this, the fact that many of these organisations are predominantly reliant on government money which will inevitably be squeezed over the next few years and the need for radical thinking becomes clear.
Handing greater decision making powers to localities means that central government will need to become a lot more disciplined about how and when it chooses to intervene.
Establishing a clear ‘operating framework’ which outlines the boundaries to local freedom would be a good starting point. In the most devolutionary scenario this could be a very limited set of specifications designed to ensure that minimum standards are met and the appropriate actors are clear on their roles and responsibilities.
Everything else would be for local discretion. Ministers would need to respect this even when decisions are taken locally that they disagree with. Can we expect to see Secretaries of State standing at the dispatch box and saying “that was a matter for the local people” more often?
Youâre in charge
With greater devolution must come greater local accountability. Local councillors and local authorities are an obvious place to start but in the future will be supplemented by other elected representatives such as locally elected police and crime commissioners.
Local people will also be engaged directly through mechanisms such as community forums, e-petitions and special interest groups. Choice of provision also has a role to play, and the schools agenda is aiming to put more power in parents’ hands to choose the school that best meets their needs (or to help establish new schools in areas where provision is poor).
Unblinking transparency of performance is the essential ingredient that will give these mechanisms teeth. But people must also be willing to use that information to hold providers, officials, elected representatives and ultimately each other to account. Different communities are likely to require different incentives to adopt this role.
There also needs to be an acceptance that services will not be the same everywhere â the dreaded “postcode lottery” â except in contrast to a lottery you can actually do something to change the outcome.
The Big Society has been criticised by some as unsubstantial. On the contrary, I’d argue that while the full implications are only slowly emerging, each new layer triggers further, often profound questions.
Where will this vision lead? Almost certainly to a radically different role for the state but to quote Bohr again, “prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”