Today many people – public service workers, users and welfare beneficiaries – will start to learn their fate. Soon after, I suspect, we will find out whether the deficit plan and the fear it is bound to instil in so many people will knock a vulnerable economy back into stagnation.
Fewer people will care, but it will also be a big day for the Big Society. It was widely noted that George Osborne’s June budget statement and supporting documents did not mention David Cameron’s big idea. It is important to its credibility that there is some reference to the idea tomorrow.
On the one hand, there needs to be evidence that the concept has helped shape the decisions being made. I understand there will be a strong localist theme in the statement and plan. The basic deal is that local authorities get less money but more freedom over how they spend it. This is the right strategy and it is credible to link it to a Big Society approach.
On the other hand, advocates of the Big Society need to emphasise its relevance in the context of austerity. The point here is not, as it is often characterised. that communities will be expected to provide voluntarily that which was previously funded (although there will no doubt be some of that). Even if Labour had won the last election and cut less deeply, less quickly there would still have been a gap between social aspirations and what the state could guarantee. Big Society champions have to show how their perspective can help close this gap.
One way of thinking of this is through the liberation of three types of hidden or dormant assets:
At the level of the individual we know that people accept that they should engage more and give more back to society. While three quarters of respondents regularly tell pollsters that local people should have more influence over local decision-making, fewer than a quarter say they are prepared to participate in community activity themselves. The Big Society is about releasing this asset by making it easier, more enjoyable and more powerful for people to engage.
At the level of the community, we know that even deprived neighbourhoods have many human assets. For example, there are often strong social networks but these are hidden from policy makers and service providers, different networks don’t always join up and many people who could join in are isolated (these are all findings from the RSA Connected Communities project in New Cross). The Big Society is about a deeper understanding of community assets and how to foster and mobilise them.
At the level of organisations a huge amount of benign social potential is wasted. The reasons are many ranging from unclear mission, lack of ambition and an overload of external demands and targets to a failure to engage and innovate or the deadening impact of organisational culture. The Big Society approach challenges organisations in the public, private and voluntary sector to maximise the social multiplier effect of their actions (this is what the RSA 2020 Public Service Commission meant by ‘social productivity’).
In the face of a lot of bad news tomorrow, people who think (for reasons good and bad) the Big Society is vacuous or a scam will have an easy script from which to read. The rest of us, with a more positive inclination, need to sharpen our argument and deepen our evidence that whatever the immediate context our country cannot flourish in the long term unless we get better at mobilising social assets.
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