The irredeemable anecdotalism of the Big Society


I hope she doesn’t mind me telling this story (after all, it’s only really my mum reading), but when she was Secretary of State at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport I once gave some rather impertinent advice to Tessa Jowell. It went something like this:

‘You are a politician who is sometimes portrayed by her critics as being a bit lightweight and fluffy and you are running a running a department that tends – at least in Whitehall – to be seen as rather lightweight and fluffy. So, every time you are asked to asked to make a speech, write an article or do an event you need to ask ‘will this make me and my job more seem more, or seem less, lightweight and fluffy?’. Only say ‘yes’ if it’s the latter’.   

Now is the time to give similar advice to the champions of the political project called the Big Society:

‘Your project is widely perceived as being vague and your assertions based on nothing but anecdote, so whenever you are asked to talk about, write about or host a discussion about the Big Society try at all costs to be concrete, specific and evidence based’.  

This is not advice which appears to have been offered to either Essex County Council or cabinet office minister Nick Hurd, and if it has, it’s not been taken.

To start with the minister, who always comes across to me as thoughtful and progressively minded. This impression was underlined when he introduced a seminar I attended earlier this week at the Cabinet Office.

The big issue, he told a room of two dozen or so Big Society thinkers and practitioners, is how we ensure that handing more power to communities does not exacerbate social inequality.

This is important. Take one example – mine, not the ministers – well-off people live longer, so in middle class communities there are lots of skilled and healthy retired people (the bedrock of community activism) while in poor communities there are very few.

The topic was right and it is encouraging to see a vital and difficult issue (which I have mentioned before in this blog) being picked up. But I’m afraid the good news ends there. For what followed was a meeting in which each person took it in turn to share some combination of (a) extolling the virtues of their own charity (b) telling us about the wonderful work of Mrs Muggins who has single-handedly transformed her council estate from violent chaos to a communitarian paradise (c) and holding forth on their own pet theory about community mobilisation (in case I sound overly critical, I did exactly the same when it came to my turn).

I’m not saying there weren’t good examples – some very good - and intelligent points, but overall the whole thing was about as robust as a tissue paper suspension bridge and about as illuminating as reflective jacket in a coal hole.

What was missing? First, some kind of structure for the conversation, identifying key issues and then exploring them in turn; second, any evidence of the current problem and its nature and causes; third, any credible account of how the Coalition intends to address the issue, with perhaps some policy options and dilemmas; fourth, any quantifiable aspiration of what the Government would like to achieve, in relation to which they might even one day be held accountable.   

Now, such meandering anecdotalism is fine for a radio phone–in or for a panel event (like the one I spoke at last week with Jesse Norman), but it won’t do from a Government that claims its big idea as a justification for some pretty tough decisions and as the foundation for a better future.

A large local authority should aim higher too. So, whilst there is plenty to admire in ‘Good for Essex’ the Council council’s ‘Big Society prospectus’ here again there is complete reliance on description and a total absence of analysis.

What is there to dislike about the ‘Essex County council employee volunteering service’, ‘our support for police neighbourhood action panels’, ‘our work to inspire ideas amongst communities’, ‘the work of stroke support partners’  or any other of the fifty five projects listed in the brochure. But to what does it all add up? Is there more or less support to third sector organisations, is all the support creating a more engaged county and how is this impacting on more basic measures of individual and collective well-being?

Surely these are relevant questions given not only the general context of cuts and austerity, but the overwhelming evidence that the last few decades have seen, on the one hand, little or no change in rates of volunteering and philanthropy and, on the other, a continually worsening regressive social gradient in all forms of engagement?  

I have said in the past that the Big Society thesis is – to use a disparaging term used by economists – ‘not good enough to be wrong’. This means it doesn’t even assert something which could be proven to be false, let alone something which could be shown to be true.

It may be fair enough that the Coalition is trying to get rid of targets and most forms of social measurement, for example, the citizenship and place surveys which could actually have told us what was happening to community engagement. There were far too many targets under the last Government and if services are being cut who is going to say a survey is a priority? But if intelligent Government ministers and effective local authorities ask us to judge the Big Society on such flimsy evidence it will just become harder and harder for those of us who still see merit in the project to defend it.

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