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Last night, Newsnight did one of its extended panel discussions that manages to tell us little we didn’t already know while at the same time being rather engaging and interesting. This one was on pensions. But what struck me as much as the topic was the way the discussion was set up and run. The panel that Newsnight had convened was, in a way, a microcosm of a community – albeit one that was rather more middle-class and informed than most. But if it represented a community, the discussion didn’t bode well.

Last night, Newsnight did one of its extended panel discussions that manages to tell us little we didn’t already know while at the same time being rather engaging and interesting. This one was on pensions. But what struck me as much as the topic was the way the discussion was set up and run. The panel that Newsnight had convened was, in a way, a microcosm of a community – albeit one that was rather more middle-class and informed than most. But if it represented a community, the discussion didn’t bode well.

First of all, let’s look at the panel composition. We had two of the usual Newsnight suspects in Will Hutton and Ros Altmann. They took on the role of established community activists, who have been running things locally for a long time. There were a couple of older people – Ann Widdecombe and Barry Cryer – who professed to being keen to work until they drop; they were the equivalents of long-standing, upstanding community members who knew everyone and had strong opinions about all sorts of things.

The Big Society has the potential to offer new opportunities for communities to design the services and create the opportunities that their members really need. But that won’t happen unless the dialogue is inclusive and people are encouraged to contribute to it

We had Steve Webb, the pensions minister, who stood in for the local councillor or MP (sorry to have to demote him for a moment). An engineer who had worked and paid taxes for 50 years and believed it was his right to retire when he had planned to represented a community member who just wanted to get on with life but felt obliged to say his piece. We had a couple of young people with intelligent things to say about a situation that is far removed from them personally; they were the keen political activists. There was a student who seemed a bit bemused by the whole situation, and understandably more interested in paying off debt and saving a deposit for a flat. He was, well, a student. And there were a few people who weren’t asked to contribute anything to the discussion. Oh, and Jeremy Paxman, who filled the shoes of the ‘establishment’.

Notice anyone missing from this panel/community? How about the thousands of people who have valid needs and opinions, but perhaps aren’t as articulate or forthright as the others. I guess they were partly there in the engineer, but he had a hard time making his point on his own in that company. And at least he got to say his piece. Perhaps ‘normal’ people were represented by the participants who didn’t get to say anything, or the non-participants who weren’t even asked to attend.

That brings us on to the way the discussion was run. Much of it involved Jeremy Paxman talking to the ‘usual suspects’ and the younger people, probably because they had the most erudite things to say, and because Paxman knows Will Hutton and Ros Altmann of old. That’s perhaps understandable: Newsnight needs articulate, informed speakers. But it did strike me that all this might well reflect the way that communities get treated under the Big Society, too, and that would be less acceptable.

It would be all too easy for dialogue between funders and leaders on the one hand, and the community on the other, to be restricted to the established community activists and the most vocal and motivated community members, and for the majority of people to be excluded because they aren’t able to make themselves heard or even to get involved. If people are excluded from that discussion, and their views are not heard, surely there’s a risk that they won’t get what they need. Moreover, if they know they have missed an opportunity to get involved, won’t they feel even more excluded than they currently do?

For all its current uncertainty, the Big Society has the potential to offer new opportunities for local voices to be heard at a local level, and for communities to design the services and create the opportunities that their members really need. But that won’t happen unless the dialogue is inclusive and people are encouraged to contribute to it. People taking on the roles of Jeremy Paxman and the Newsnight production team will need to work hard to ensure that it is, and they are.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00tpsy4#synopsis

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