There has been a lot of Big Society talk this week with David Cameron’s ‘Big Speech’ in Liverpool. Much of the debate has focused on whether or not Big Society is simply a way to use volunteers to plug gaps in public services. But let’s be clear – that’s what charities and voluntary organisations have done for centuries. Where would our social care provision be without the millions of people caring for their loved ones in a voluntary capacity? And it’s been the same with voluntary efforts to tackle homelessness, poverty, protect civil liberties and even political reform. In this sense, this is nothing new.
The government have made perfectly clear their intention to eliminate the structural deficit and to make spending cuts to achieve this. So the real question is, how do we manage that in ways that encourage social action and enable service delivery reform rather than inhibiting them?
These two things – radical service delivery transformation and community action – are the main components of the Big Society. On the one hand, creating opportunities for citizens to hold the state to account and take over public services and facilities. And on the other hand, supporting neighbourhood groups and a strong civil society.
So far so good…But the question I’ve been asking myself is ‘whether the Big Society, as it’s currently configured, is the best way to achieve these twin aims?’
My conclusion is ‘probably not’…but not for any philosophical objection to creating new opportunities for communities to play a greater role in tackling problems and realising their aspirations. My concern is more to do with the chronology and the relationship between these two aims.
Let me explain…
Opportunities for service delivery transformation will, I hope, create better services and a more responsive state. But this, on its own, will not necessarily lead to a strong civil society, as organisations will focused primarily on delivering services. Social action on the other hand, can create stronger and more numerous voluntary groups with the skills and ambition to take over public services and make the state more accountable.
So social action can support better service delivery but service delivery does not inevitably support community action. This becomes significant when we look at the timeframe for these two strands. The government’s aim to have community groups in every neighbourhood and every adult involved in a community group will take years, if it’s ever to be achieved. However the urgency of the spending cuts makes the timetable for service delivery reform far more pressing. So the chronology is the wrong way round given the relationship between these two things.
At present there is a real risk that creating new opportunities for citizens will actually exacerbate existing inequality and mean that the most vulnerable in society will be worse off. Those communities with skills, capacity, ambition and other resources (more likely to be found in affluent areas), are better equipped to take advantage of these emerging opportunities. This will divert our precious resources away from poorer areas where they are needed most and reinforce existing inequalities. If you accept (as an increasing number of policy makers seem to) the evidence from ‘the Spirit Level’ that more equal societies do better than unequal ones, then this would be an unwelcome development for society as a whole.
Big Society does offer potential to radically transform the interactions between citizens and the state and transform our services and institutions to meet new social, environment and economic needs. However unless we reconfigure our approach, any savings made will be a false economy and will end up costing us far more in the long run.