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Forgive the long post, but I promised to report back on the reception for the Big Society Network at Number Ten.

It was an absolutely fascinating event and helped me start to excavate the concept to see its qualities and flaws.

In his comments on the Big Society, the Prime Minister (who always comes across as personally impressive) considered the questions: what, why and how.

He said that the Big Society was premised on the simple idea that ‘we can all do more’. Sceptics will see this as bland and empty, but I choose to draw from it something more substantive. The idea that the BS is about everyone as an alternative to emphasising, on the one hand, the philanthropic responsibilities of the privileged or, on the other, the social needs or development of the disadvantaged.

Another dimension of this inclusive approach was also emphasised by Lord Wei at last week’s Institute for Government event at which he said that the strength of the Citizen’s Service pilots had lain in bringing together well-off and disadvantaged young people not just to work on projects but as the basis for enduring socially integrated networks in localities.  

Towards the end of his short speech - in what almost felt like a throw away line - David Cameron spoke of contributing to society as part of what makes for ‘happy and fulfilled lives’. The BS idea seems then to go beyond a simple aspiration for greater social responsibility to imply an important statement about the good life and the good society. This is akin to the kind of link I have been trying to make in my own work between the somewhat instrumental approach of the 2007 ‘social aspiration gap’ lecture and the broader philosophical inquiry into about human agency and fulfilment in the 21st century enlightenment speech and pamphlet. I very much hope Coalition (and Opposition) politicians will continue to open up these bigger questions.

We were very much back to instrumentality in the PM’s answer to the ‘why’ question. Simply, he argued in a time of austerity we need citizens to fill the gap between social need and the limits of the state. He was careful to emphasise that this is about restructuring and reorienting the state, not just withdrawing it (this is a point Cameroonians always make to distance themselves from alleged Thatcherite social laissez faire). This is, of course, a compelling argument, but this part of the BS story could go further. There is, for example, the case that public services will only be able to give us what we want and achieve social outcomes effectively if citizens are involved as co-producers of those outcomes. There is also an argument about place. Most of us want to live in localities that have a strong and distinctive civic life but too many of us are free riders on those who put the work into local decisions, initiatives and capacity.

The Prime Minister then turned to the how question and this is where I think there are still some quite big problems about clarity and intention. The PM highlighted four examples of ‘how’ to create a Big Society: more Government funding flowing through the third sector; the civil service being a ‘civic service’ which seemed primarily to be about civil servants doing more outreach and volunteering; encouraging more corporate social responsibility; and – linking in the BS Network’s big idea – a single portal through which people can join groups, identify local needs and offer help. (The BS Network is planning a website called ‘your square mile’ to provide online services to social activists and volunteers and hyper local information about opportunities to engage - I have my doubts about this but they are for another time.)

There are several problems with the PM’s list: first, the conflation of a particular form of governance with civic activism and social responsibility. Earlier this week we heard that the new NHS arrangements are part of the Big Society as the GP consortia that buy contracting services from the private sector may be social enterprises. But to argue that the governance form of these consortia is significant in itself is like claiming that all state employees are motivated by something called the public service ethos. Some are and some aren’t. It is what people do and what drives them, rather than the sector they are in, that matters. Michael Gove’s free schools are often described as symbols of the Big Society but if these schools are set up in order to allow middle class or religious groups to segregate themselves or if these schools choose to have little or no relationship to the surrounding community, then they will make society less ‘big’.

Second, the PM’s reference to encouraging CSR gives ammunition to those who see the BS as empty rhetoric. Lots of people (many of them rather tedious) have been banging on about CSR for years and years. But the credibility of CSR practice has, if anything, been damaged as we have watched banks and oil companies with great CSR programmes screw up our lives and the environment with their mainstream business activities. By all means talk about CSR but only if we have a more robust account of what it is and what kinds of expectations we are setting (especially if the overall policy objective is to reduce business regulation).

Third, throwing so many different things together does play into the danger I mentioned yesterday that the Big Society is simply a tin of gloss paint which can be slapped onto almost any Government initiative to make it look better while leaving the working parts and social impact unchanged. From the pre-publicity I am seeing for Tory Party fringe conference events, it seems almost every special interest group is finding a Big Society angle to its work. How long will it be before Private Eye has a 'Big Society Balls' column I wonder? 

A much clearer account is needed of what the core criteria are for deciding whether activity can usefully be put under the BS banner. What is it about intentions, methods and outcomes that let us know whether an activity or policy contributes to the Big Society?

Economists have a phrase to describe a sloppy theory that it is ‘not even good enough to be wrong’. For the concept of the Big Society to be useful it must be possible to say that something is not part of the BS and to use the idea to guide significant political and administrative decisions. The Big Society has a lot of potential but, media and public scepticism being what it is, the Coalition does not have long to show that it is an idea with substance, edge and concrete form.

As an overall scorecard I would give BS ‘fair to good’ as a big idea. As a set of policy proposals – such as the Big Society Bank, national citizens service, your square mile – I would say ‘has promise but must show delivery’. But it is as a way of judging or shaping mainstream policies across Government where I think lies the greatest potential and also the greatest current weaknesses and dangers of the Big Society.


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