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With pretty much every part of the public sector facing cuts, the search is on for ways to deliver efficiencies. Ben Rogers asked whether the Prime Minister's Big Society provides some answers. 

To be fair to Cameron and colleagues, they have been careful not to hoist their eye-watering programme of debt-reduction too closely to their social programme of promoting voluntary and civic action. That would risk bolstering the arguments of those who say that Conservative talk of freeing up society from the shackles of the state is just another way of justifying rolling back the state.  

And to be fair to the last Labour government, they were all over this territory long before Cameron. New Labour was pre-occupied from its beginning with promoting 'social capital', 'co-production', community empowerment, and the role of voluntary and community groups. 

The RSA too has, for some time, been promoting more citizen-centred approaches to solving our collective problems. Indeed, Matthew Taylor has argued for some time that this is critical to closing what he calls ‘the social aspiration gap’: that between what we say we want and the way in which we behave.

But our present economic woes are undoubtedly sharpening everyone's interest in the Big Society. So not just Conservative councils, but Labour ones, like Lambeth, have launched consultations on if and how they can shift the balance of responsibility from themselves to citizens and civil society.  

But how much can we really hope civil society, service-users and citizens to do for themselves and each other?

International surveys have long revealed that some countries seem remarkably richer in 'social capital' than others (the Scandinavian countries generally top the polls). Yet they also find that countries rich in social capital tend to have quite large states (Scandinavia again). Chicken and egg or egg and chicken?   

Other research shows that a nation's social capital and civicness can wax and wane. This appears to have been the case, most famously, with the US. But these are largely secular changes, that happen over generations or at least decades. American social capital seems to have been boosted by the experience of the Second World War, and public support - most notably free high education - for soldiers who returned from the war. Churchill's Britons too famously 'stepped up to the plate' - but it is not clear how useful a precedent that is in the here and now.   

 But what about at a more day to day level? Here the picture is complicated and often quite murky, but not as encouraging as one might think. 

 A recent report by the Young Foundation found there is strong evidence that approaches that engage service users and citizens lead to significantly greater level of satisfaction on the part of users and citizens. Restorative justice for instance leaves victims feeling much more satisfied with the criminal justice system than conventional approaches;  allowing recipients of social care to decide how to spend the money allocated to them ('devolved budgets')  are very popular with those who have them.

 But the Young Foundation also argued that evidence that these approaches lead to more efficient services or improve other outcomes is much less robust. This seems to me to be somewhat underselling the case for involvement and empowerment. There is evidence that approaches that engage citizens can improve outcomes.

 True, some of the most oft-cited examples - participatory budgeting in Latin America - only have limited relevance here. And most of the benefits tend to come into the medium to longer term, rather than the shorter to medium term, the focus everyone has now. It is certainly hard to believe that most of the ‘Big Society policies’ so far unveiled by the government – a dedicated Big Society day, civic service for 16 year olds, training for community organisers – will make much of a contribution to the efficiencies that need to be found.   

 Still there are some interesting and encouraging examples of possible ways forward. As David Halpern, the government's new advisor on the Big Society has long argued, there is great potential in using the net to create and promote local or even national networks of reciprocal care and support; what are sometime called 'complementary currencies'. 

Cameron today highlighted the example of Southwark Circle, a local membership group that uses social networks to tackle everyday problems arising in the area. Some organisations have made extremely successful use of volunteers, the National Trust being one good example.

As I argued in my recent RSA pamphlet, we could to more to skill citizens, on the model of first aid, to tackle problems for themselves, including anti-social behaviour.

Where does that leave us? It seems to me there are two general conclusions of a positive kind. First, there is a common sense case, supported by empirical evidence, for attempting to strengthen our social and civic ties and promote greater voluntary action. Second, there are a range of seemingly promising policies that could be pursued.

At the same time there is no magic key out there. If there was it would have been used already. We will have to make it up as we go along. Oh yes ... and any gains in the short terms at least are likely to be modest. They will do little to alleviate the effects of the coming cuts.


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