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The hard reality of the spending cuts our new government will make in the next few years will force us to re-think what public services are and should be. The looming "age of austerity" will also demand that we ask more searching questions about the type of society we want to live in and the type of citizens we need to be. It certainly has me.

The hard reality of the spending cuts our new government will make in the next few years will force us to re-think what public services are and should be. The looming "age of austerity" will also demand that we ask more searching questions about the type of society we want to live in and the type of citizens we need to be. It certainly has me.

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The future of public services and the social values we hold are essentially connected: public services reflect wider social values. It is no coincidence that the marketisation of public services took place alongside the rise of an anti-collectivist, hyper-individualised ethos in our society in which levels of social solidarity, feelings of belonging and support for economic redistribution have all declined.

This has got we thinking about social values and rights and responsibilities. The Ministry of Justice published a recent review which showed broad public support for having a British "Statement of Values" and "Bill of Rights and Responsibilities". The problem is the recommendations lack ambition, and lack any coherent account of how abstract rights and responsibilities might be turned into new forms of solidarity and collective action.

Excessive individualism is frequently argued to be behind many of the problems in our society from substance abuse to family breakdown. This argument is used by Philip Blond and some of those on the political right to support their wider diagnosis of "Broken Britain". They argue that today people have too many individual rights and too few collective responsibilities. Rooted in a nostalgic longing for a mythical agrarian utopia, the argument for increasing responsibilities at the expense of rights assumes that we can increase responsibility among people and communities only by cutting our rights-based culture down to size.

This strategy of rebalancing rights and responsibilities is based on an ideological commitment to what Robert Nozick called the "limited state". It is not based on policy research into what actually increases collective or individual responsibility. This way of viewing the world, which casts the state as the devil, does succeed in redistributing responsibility from state to citizen. But it does so without a realistic strategy for actually fostering behaviours and ways of thinking that embody individual and collective responsibility (i.e. pro-sociality and pro-civic action). It’s about as stupid as throwing money at public services that are structurally incapable of delivering the outcomes you want.

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In a forthcoming pamphlet as part of the Citizen Power programme we will outline an alternative view. At the heart of the pamphlet will be the argument that building the "big society" will depend on generating new forms of civic activism and collective solidarity. And for this we need to establish stronger citizen rights and responsibilities (not fewer rights) focused on core capabilities people and communities need to flourish.

These provisionally include "citizen rights" to influence over local and national decision-making; community ownership; transparency of information; resourcefulness (e.g. networks of solidarity); emotional resillience and creative individual and collective self-expression, and "citizen responsibilities" to participate in local community life; support the most vulnerable in society; protect the environment; cultivate civic health and well-being, and be more self-reliant.

The big challenge is working out how you might make this work in practice and how you boil down abstract principles into clearly defined objectives. The pamphlet will outline practical policy recommendations for doing this. We explore the possibility of rolling out "Citizen Contracts" across the UK. These would be locally deliberated, formal agreements that hold public services, communities and citizens to account and would be based around stronger citizen rights and responsibilities to civic life.

The objective is not solve these massive political and philosophical issues. The point will be to open up a debate about how we might develop practical policy proposals for building civic soldarity, and what rights and responsibilities a Citizen Contract should or could include.

What citizen rights and responsibilities would you include in your Citizen Contract?

Find out more about Citizen Power

Rights and responsibilities: developing our constitutional framework - summary of responses [Minstry of Justice PDF 125KB]

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