Big Society - ideas but no washing line - RSA

Big Society - ideas but no washing line


  • Behaviour change

 The RSA published the second in our new pamphlet series today. It is by Ben Rogers and called ‘The Woolwich model: Can citizens tackle anti-social behaviour’. The pamphlet has had some media profile including an excellent interview with Ben on the Today programme. We had an interesting launch event this morning, including a response from Policing Minister, Nick Herbert.

I have done a few media interviews on the pamphlet and have found a theme emerging. On the one hand, there is support for the idea that citizens should be more willing to intervene when they see behaviour like vandalism or rowdiness, along with a recognition that in times of austerity we need the police to focus on the harder end of crime. On the other hand, there is scepticism that people will intervene and alarmism about the possible consequences of ‘having a go’.

In fact, this makes the case for Ben’s main recommendation which is for more people to undertake training which improves their capacity to read situations, to intervene safely and to know how best to deal with people who are agitated. Having these skills will give people some of the confidence they currently lack, a deficit which means that most of us err on the side of caution when faced with anti-social behaviour.

In my introduction to this morning’s event I described the RSA as the Big Society think tank. This is not because I wish to sacrifice the RSA’s political independence but because we have been talking about issues of citizen engagement for several years (ever since my 2007 lecture when I coined the inelegant phrase ‘the social aspiration gap’).

As the New Economics Foundation have highlighted in a recent report, the Big Society remains opaque both as a concept and as a policy framework. The longer this is the case the less likely it is to be taken seriously in Whitehall and town hall, and the more sceptical will become the public and key institutions. The converse danger is that the Big Society becomes a coat of gloss paint that is applied to all initiatives to try to repel criticism. So yesterday, for example, I heard a Conservative say that because the collectives of GPs hiring private sector commissioning agencies under the new NHS plan might be social enterprises, this was an example of the Big Society.

This implies either that the BS is a rather mechanistic concept which is simply about more economic activity being in the not for profit sector, or that the criteria for what enhances social capacity is so elastic as to be almost meaningless. Peter Mandelson used to talk about a washing line or narrative on which policy initiatives could be pinned to make them legible. The Big Society needs a washing line. 

I am going this afternoon to a Big Society reception at Number Ten (it will feel strange going back as a visitor). I expect that the PM will make some comments so I may report back later on whether further light has been shed on where the idea is going next.

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