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Tough transitions, the need for visible battles, and a challenge to big business - more thoughts on the Big Society


I don’t want to seem obsessed (or obsessive) so this may be the last blog for a while directly addressing the Big Society. But I couldn’t resist one more comment. Partly, this is because I have read two very thought provoking pieces recently, which are worth considering together.

First, is the always interesting, and fiercely independent Jenni Russell writing in yesterday’s Evening Standard, which really isn’t IMHO a bad newspaper at all:

Second, is a recent post by Nat Wei, the Government’s lead advisor on the Big Society. At first glance it may seem these pieces have little in common - the first being critical and the second defending the Coalition’s policies – but in Nat’s piece there is a sideways recognition of the issues raised by Jenni:

“ But if the next few years will see a battle for our purse, it is true to say that the next sixty will be about a battle for our freedom, about how we live and how government supports and enables us rather than intrudes into our personal and collective lives, allowing us to pursue our own agendas and that of the common good more in partnership with it rather than in spite of it, whatever they may be “

Nat seems here to be conceding a point I made in my post on Saturday, namely that in the short term the Big Society agenda is bound to be obscured by the impact of public sector spending reductions.

So it was interesting today to be on a Green Alliance panel responding to Cabinet minister Nick Hurd. Although I thought Nick’s presentation still lacked some the conceptual rigor and policy underpinning that I – as an old wonk - like to hear, he was refreshingly open and frank about some of the challenges the Big Society faces and one of these was precisely the issue of ‘transition’; how can the ideas and ambitions of the Big Society take root while so many projects and activities which look like are members of the Big Society genus are being uprooted? Interestingly he also implied that the Government could re-examine its commitment to leaving councils largely free to decide how to make cuts if the evidence becomes overwhelming that it is the third sector (rather than the public sector) which is bearing the brunt.

In my own closing comments I argued that people need to feel that it isn’t  just civil society which is being asked to step up to the plate to make the Big Society work in difficult times. We need to know that Big Society thinking is forcing major service departments to change their preferred way of doing things sometimes - for example, reforming in a Big Society direction may cost more and take longer than, say, simply outsourcing to the keenest or lowest bidder.

And, what about the private sector?  The Conservatives have its ear so what is being asked of big business by way of contributing to the wider Big Society vision? Warm words won’t suffice, which brings me to an another article in yesterday’s Evening Standard, which I enjoyed even more than Jenni’s. It is by the ES business editor Chris Blackhurst.

We have an event here this evening dedicated to a beloved but now sadly missed former RSA Chairman, Sir Peter Baldwin. Matthew Bishop and Michael Green writers of ‘Philanthrocapitalism: how giving can save the world’ are talking about their new book ‘The Road from Ruin: a new capitalism for a Big Society’. Just to fire them up. I think I might take down a copy of Chris’s column.

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