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Could the government’s Big Society concept signal a big idea that cracks the challenging reconciliation of left and right, asks Nick Jankel FRSA?

The government’s Big Society idea is a conundrum. Is it a cynical way to avoid responsibility for our national welfare, punishing the excluded by replacing essential public services with the sweat of volunteers? Is it further marketisation of the public domain without anyone being fully accountable? Or could the coalition deliver a Middle Way; one that generates a sense of shared destiny whilst leapfrogging the cumbersome and costly statist solutions favoured by politicians who still believe that government is the best tool for distributing resources in an age of networks and collaboration?

I am a firm believer in some fundamental free-market values such as responsibility, resourcefulness and creativity. However, the trickle-down theory of social betterment espoused by the right for decades has been firmly cast as naive by the realities of the last twenty years. During this time poverty has actually increased considerably in countries such as Nigeria and stayed pretty constant in others such as India, despite huge increases in GDP, a rapidly growing middle-class and Western-oriented, capitalist economic policies.

Whilst I advocate anything but the forced wealth redistribution and engineered equality policies of socialism, capitalism needs to learn how to be constructive - to give more than it takes. This means placing a moral compass at its epicenter. Without it, greed and avarice eventually rise to prominence. With such a compass (and compassion) instilled in us, we can ensure that the driving engines of innovation are harnessed to activities that generate the social returns that most people value; cohesion, community and connectivity, for example. Enjoying the rich life whilst others are in abject pain and suffering is only tenable if our moral imagination is minimal. Instead, we voluntarily use our resources to improve the wellbeing of humanity, not because we have to but because we want to; because it is our moral imperative.

Philanthropy is one way to engender this. Far more interesting are ideas like Whole Systems Change (where organisations re-engineer themselves to become sustainable in every sense of the word); social innovation (using commercial approaches to solve public problems); co-operatives (that are estimated to last twice as long as individually owned corporations), pro-poor products (items that can help lift the bottom few billion out of poverty) and social enterprises (where profit is predominately used to generate social impact).

It is not for government to control this transition, as it would no doubt just crush the ingenuity of the passionate. But it must learn how to foster collective innovation; to ‘coach’ the community elegantly towards ever more constructive contribution; and rapidly work out effective ways to harness digital and social networks to channel public resources to those who are most likely to come up with the big ideas necessary to ‘disappear’ our most pernicious social problems. Breakthrough ideas mostly come from those on the edges - mavericks outside the networks of power, influence and special interests who are not wedded to the status quo.

A world without hierarchical government is surely the right aim

In this version of the Big Society, the government does not dictate alone how wealth is redistributed. But that does not mean that those in need are left to rely on the generous hand-outs of a few. Instead, government creates the right conditions for the wealthy, the wise and the talented to self-organise for the greater good – whilst focusing major resources on bringing along those who are not there yet. Compassionate Conservatism can only be really compassionate if free-market theories are coupled with a firm commitment to empower those currently exhibiting less creativity, so that they too can enjoy the freedom and opportunities on offer. This means helping people to discover their own contributive potential. Massive spending cuts only work when we have all learnt to be self-starters, when we all have the confidence to forge a path for ourselves and create prosperity for the whole. For some, this journey to self-reliance is a long journey. But I believe most, if not all, people can get there if treated with respect, with patience and with the assumption that they have their own unique gifts to offer. To do this we must let go of the ruling paradigm that sees people as selfish and stupid cogs in the machine; and help all to discover their place within the interconnected web of human relations (and the web of life itself).

Thomas Paine declared: “Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence... For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver.”

A world without hierarchical government is surely the right aim; yet the path by which we get there defines our moral progress. Small government is the luxury of those communities that invest in the mental capital and the leadership potential of their constituents. Simply removing welfare does not transform people into active citizens. Only learning (and caring) can do that. When coached and cajoled (gently), individuals can become virtuosi at whatever skill or talent they gravitate towards (and that the world has use for). This new sensibility – that I call ‘Creative Collectivism’ – channels brilliance away from fame and fortune. Instead, we ensure our combined creativity is focused on resolving the massive social and environmental problems that threaten us all.

This then is a vision of the Big Society where we are consciously aware of our interconnected and interdependent future; and because of this, our deepest motivation is to be compassionate and creative for the good of the whole.

Nick Jankel is a leadership, collaboration and social innovation expert and the inventor of the WECREATE collaboration and leadership toolkit. To read more recommendations on how to transform society through breakthrough and transformative social ideas - such as how we create the next Google or iPhone for social change - see the White Paper.


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