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Poor old Big Society. It does sometimes seem to be doomed.

The day in December when David Cameron made his set piece speech on business and the Big Society was also the day England got trounced in its World Cup bid. Today the Prime Minister has tried again to get people enthused but I rather suspect it won’t be his speech in Milton Keynes but a certain Welsh footballer who will be dominating the news headlines for the next 24 hours.

But the speech is important reading for that dwindling band of us willing to put up some defence of the Prime Minister’s big idea. I’m afraid I have to admit to being pretty underwhelmed by most of it. The long section on Big Society public services served to confirm the suspicion that almost anything can be referred to as a Big Society initiative. There may, for example, be lots of reason to give parents more school choice and set up more Academies (although very few of those set up by the Coalition are in the poorest areas) but it is hard to see how individual parental competition for places and establishing institutions which can – if they choose - more easily divest themselves of links to the wider local community is anything to do with strengthening social bonds.  

I haven’t read the Giving White Paper and the tax changes look like they could be powerful, but I do have some concerns about the approach to philanthropy. It is good to offer people new ways of donating but as people tend to over-estimate how much they give the danger of being asked to round up our grocery bills and add a quid to our cash withdrawal is that it will, at best, simply displace other forms of giving

But that’s enough churlishness. Near the end of the speech there was a passage that was genuinely interesting. It chimed with my point on Friday that social brain thinking should direct us to looking at the whole purposes and systems of public services not just some nudging at the margins (by the way, thanks for all the people who responded far too kindly to my pathetic attention seeking threat to stop blogging). The Prime Minister’s words also offers a lever for those of us trying to get the whole of Whitehall to be a bit more convincing in its commitment to the Prime Minister’s agenda

“ And in a way that I don't think has been sufficiently appreciated, we are bringing that insight right into the heart of the business of government.

 

Right across Whitehall we are today applying to the design of policy the best that science teaches us about how people behave - and what drives their well-being.

 

We are revising the 'Green Book' - the basis on which the Government assesses the costs and benefits of different policies - to fully take account of their social impact.

 

We are developing a new test for all policies - that they should demonstrate not just how they help reduce public spending and cut regulation and bureaucracy - but how they create social value too.

 

And, the Office for National Statistics is developing new independent measures of well-being so that by the end of the year, we will be the first developed country in the world that is able rigorously to measure progress on more than just GDP.”

I have in the past questioned the Government’s resistance to strategy and measurement of any kind. But if a social value test is to be meaningful it will have to have some basis in method. Perhaps what method should be chosen is an issue we could debate here at the RSA?

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