The Big Society debate must move on


The Times front page splash is ‘Big Society in crisis as economy weakens’. The article is a bit of a dog’s dinner conflating a number of different stories to suggest a build-up of pressure on David Cameron and his Government.  But from what I can see running on Twitter (including among ‘the friends of the Big Society’), it feels like unless Number Ten moves quickly this might be a turning point against the credibility of the whole project.

I have posted on what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of the Big Society so far. One of the vulnerabilities of such a broad strategy is that all of us who have expressed support have our own idea of what matters most. The Times piece contains many quotes from Phillip Blond, head of the think tank ResPublica (whether he undertook the briefing on behalf of elements in Number Ten is an intriguing question).  While my biggest worry about the Big Society is the lack of realism about capacity in disadvantaged areas, Phillip sees the promotion of mutualism as the key issue. From ailing football clubs to the Port of Dover, he has been disappointed by the failure of the Government to get behind opportunities to expand the mutual sector. 

The ideas of the Big Society can’t change the world overnight, and anyone with any sense recognises the challenges of taking the idea forward in a time of public sector austerity. But as long as the Big Society continues to be everything, it is in danger of becoming nothing.  Economists sometimes criticise a theory saying it is ‘not good enough to be wrong’. By this they mean the idea lacks even the explanatory power even to be disproven, let alone to be validated. Whilst it may not be possible to save the credibility of the Big Society by a new policy or spending announcement, it could be given some new life by a clearer intellectual exposition.

Even among its more eloquent advocates – like Lord Wei (one of the targets of the Times briefing) - accounts of the Big Society rely too much on assertion and anecdote and too little on testable hypotheses on the one hand, and a clear headed recognition of dilemmas and trade-offs on the other.

Here’s an example of the latter:  I was chatting the other day to a community activist who had up until then been giving me a largely positive account of meetings in her area to promote the idea of a neighbourhood plan, an idea which could potentially be a very exciting route into greater local engagement.  But now it appears, even at this early stage, that factions are emerging. This throws open the question of who is going to be the facilitator and honest broker of neighbourhood planning. The obvious candidate is the local authority but as neighbourhood plans may often be developed explicitly to counter local authority planning policy this is a bit like asking a turkey to organise Christmas lunch.

A couple of years ago we might have looked to CLG civil servants or maybe an organisation like CABE to develop thinking and support practice in neighbourhood planning, but it is unclear where the capacity now lies. Which leaves the impression that the Government simply thinks communities will somehow work it out by themselves. But, this is such a vague and groundless expectation it doesn’t even provide something to debate.

If the Big Society debate doesn’t get more substantive and granular quickly, it will feel like the only credible thing to do is knock the whole idea.

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