A few months ago, in a series of posts about the Big Society, I described what I saw as some of the conditions for its success. In the few moments before I go off to record Moral Maze, I wanted to give an impressionistic update along five dimensions:
Is the idea seen as credible? Here I would give four out of five. Despite the obvious opportunities to attack the idea offered by its vagueness, by public service cuts and general public scepticism toward politicians’ ideas, the Big Society seems to have grown in prominence and importance in public debate. Every day there seems to be a conference somewhere about the idea. Many organisations are framing their challenges and strategies with the concept and it was very significant when, recently, Nick Clegg felt able to offer his own endorsement.
Is the idea being ‘mainstreamed’ (I know, it’s a horrible word). Here I’m stuck between three and four out of five. There is no question that the Localism Bill had a strong Big Society feel to it and I agree with Rodney Schwartz from Clearly So that there appear to be a growing number of initiatives emerging from Government which align with Big Society themes (decentralisation, new forms of public engagement, a bigger role in public services for the third and community sector, personalisation of public services). Also, lots of local authorities (of all political stripes) are thinking about the huge challenges they now face through a Big Society shaped lens. Mind you, there are still some blind spots (for example, the failure of the Schools White Paper to champion community engagement beyond a few free schools).
What of the specific Big Society initiatives being driven out of Number Ten such as the Big Society Network, my square mile, the Big Society Bank, community organisers, citizen service etc? Here I think we get down to three out of five. There is progress, but overall there seems to be a problem about clarity, capacity and scale in relation to these ideas.
Is the idea realistic in terms of social and community resources? Here I’m afraid I go down to one or two out of five. Whilst being a supporter of the Big Society concept, I have always argued that its funding needs to be highly redistributive to take account of the greater problems and fewer ‘hidden’ resources in deprived areas. The apparently regressive local government settlement is therefore a huge blow to the credibility of the idea. It is very difficult to see any non-statutory service surviving in our inner cities and deprived towns.
Of course, the big test of the Big Society will be how it fares when the cuts in services, grants and benefits really bite next year. And on this it is too early to say. When I speak to voluntary sector audiences I would describe their current view as obeying Gramsci’s injunction to display ‘optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect’.
So in summary the Big Society six months after the election:
Credibility test: 4 out of 5
Mainstream test: 3 or 4 out of 5
New initiatives test 3 out of 5
Social justice test 1 or 2 out of 5
Surviving the cuts test – tbc
What do my wonderful readers think?