Just how Big is the Big Society?

26 August 2010

Some emerging insights about the implications of the Big Society as explored in our recent Big Society Public Services seminar series.

Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist reportedly said that “anyone who isn’t 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. 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.

Big platoons

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.

No, Minister

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?

You’re 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 – the dreaded “postcode lottery” – 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.”

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Comments (5)

  1. Betapolitics on 10 September 2010 at 1:19 pm

    For me one of main things about Big Society is reconnecting people with what happens in their life. Where the state says: “We deal with that, we are the equipped experts” people will let go of any responsibility for it. This leads to a vicious circle of the state being required to do more and more, while citizens feel like doing less and less.

    Government and its agencies should always be thinking about how to do things ‘together’ with people, rather than doing things ‘to’ people. I appreciate that in practice this way of operating may consume a lot of time and has the potential to be frustrating but the outcomes reached should more than compensate for that. I have always remembered what a missionary priest once told me” “On your own you go fast, but its only together that you go far”.

  2. Mrs.Josephine Hyde-Hartley on 14 September 2010 at 7:20 pm

    Whilst the full implications for policy in practice about the Big society are being worked out it may be pertinent to hereby demonstrate the current capacity of the systems given to the public ie in this jungle that is the charity world to help. Thus for example I can tell there’s something not happening as far as I’m concerned as a citizen regarding this so-called pensions commission involving John Hutton; If it’s true that Mr. Hutton is determined that this “work should be conducted openly and transparently and that our conclusions will be underpinned with a comprehensive analysis and evidence-base.” then citizens need to know how and where we can likewise, kindly submit our valuable contributions to the dialogue, please.

    Similarly how can citizens respond to the very important schools transport consultation when it’s so hard to find ie not apparently available even on one’s otherwise very fancy looking county council web-site?

    Lord Adonis (in some other place) once remarked that change is coming. Happy to see him so well placed to help! Can somebody please tell him it’s here.

  3. Adrian Brown on 15 September 2010 at 4:03 pm

    I’m sure your frustration that the quality of transparency and local consultation is not yet matching the Big Society vision will be a common complaint over the next few months. As ever, reality will lag the rhetoric by some margin. The risk for the government is that this gap, along with dissonance created by the cuts agenda leads to public cynicism and derails the Big Society before it’s had a chance to get off the ground.

    As David Wilcox points out in this excellent post, the Big Society needs to start generating its own momentum but I can’t help feeling that government has a leadership role to play as well. For example, getting the narrative right around the Spending Review on October 20th will be crucial.

  4. Drew H Gill on 29 September 2010 at 2:52 pm

    In reply to Adrian re leadership role of government and getting narrative right around the Spending Review on October 20th.

    Not narrative, pure political spin my friend. All the Big Society talk is a waste of time as politicians crave power and will never really give it away to people in communities; there is too much at stake.

    Wake up to the BIG LIE all of you!

  5. Strategy Unit RIP | Blog on 17 April 2012 at 12:31 pm

    [...] the Office for Civil Society – to drive forward the three Big Society themes of  public service reform, empowering communities and social action. [...]

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