Thursday, 7 October 2010

Big Society; time to define!

Back! Three conferences in a row. I'm exhausted. I'm not doing that again next year! I'm sure my reward is in Heaven, but there are limits!

Reflecting back on the last few days I'm convinced that the Coalition Government need to get to grips with what they mean by Big Society. Every time this came up in Brum we got waffle about no plan, we won't know till we see it, it might be chaotic (that was Francis) etc. And it is abundantly clear that many Ministers see it meaning different things - indeed it's clearly convenient if you can announce your latest wheeze as part of Big Society.

The best one I have heard yet was that it is like the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity; if you have to have it explained you clearly do not understand. So it was hardly surprising that there was little applause in DC's speech for the Big Society Lord Kitchener bit.

This has to stop. There is a real danger that the muddle over defining it will inevitably lead people to draw their own conclusions and, after Oct 20, these may lead to the whole concept being ridiculed. And that will blow back on our sector. I have already warned that we are in danger of being sucked into a party political storm around our role in a way that may denigrate the great work of the third sector.

For me the two elements of BigSoc that resonate are;

# radical reforms to public services to place citizens at their heart and enhance the third sector's role,

# decentralising power to people and communities, again enhancing the role of the third sector,

And it is time we got a clear line on the role of the State and the individual and an acknowledgement of the power of the organised third sector to deliver this agenda in a positive way.

Currently we move from exhortations to volunteer more, give more, do more, to instructions about not having too many babies, not shirking work and getting married.

A good fringe meeting in Brum on Tuesday rather illustrated the point; "Magna Carta for localism" it was grandly called, with various Council Leaders (Wandsworth, Westminster and Hammersmith)and Greg Clark MP.

We were discussing the great Saxon tradition of Local Government. Greg (a good guy) talked about the need for rights rather than discretion - which required a new legislative settlement that entrenches those rights; the Localism Bill will give a general power of competence to all Councils.

It is interesting that all political parties tend to talk localism in opposition but soon go centralism in power. But Clark and Pickles are clearly not in that mould.

He talked about the Sustainable Communities Act which gives a right to challenge to communities. He also said that citizens should also have rights against Local Government. Councils have to devolve powers to individuals and communities. If communities feel they can deliver a better service they should be able to do so. He argued this was particularly important for the third sector.

Cllr Barrow, Leader of Westminster, wants to ensure they have more freedom; and not to be the delivery agents for central Government. But when he spoke he ignored Greg's point about giving power away. He failed to mention the third sector or communities. It was all about how he could do more. And the other Council leaders followed. They got Greg's bit about them getting more power. They missed his point about communities. This entirely explains why Councils the length and breadth of the country are slashing spend on the third sector.

And the challenge of how people see BigSoc was explained by Ben Page of Mori in a fringe that Social Investment Business had organised with the RSA. He told us about polling results.

Six out of ten say it is the Government's job to do services. But people like the Nanny State and the enabling State all at the same time!

On BigSoc, half heard of it, but the majority say it "Won't work in practice". Many say it's an excuse for cuts. So skeptical on detail.

Rural areas have historically higher levels of volunteering. Big challenge. If you take into account the index of deprivation then less likely deprived communities will volunteer. And especially as volunteering levels are lower among the unemployed than the employed. Most people get involved to "stop" things happening, not to do stuff; this is at the heart of the conundrum for DC; somehow I suspect he was not talking in his speech about us all doing more campaigning! It's what the Big Society Network failed to understand to their cost.

We don't get told what is good volunteering by Governments. We in civil society determine this. There is an irony in being lectured by politicians to do more, whilst simultaneously also being told Government wants to interfere less.

Matthew Taylor was interesting. He said capacity is key. Community development is expensive and long term. This is an important lesson yet, so far, the organised and experienced third sector has been excluded from planning. We will be getting "community organisers" but according to some predetermined Government plan hatched up in Whitehall and ignoring the centuries of experience in civil society on community development. ASDA appears to be more involved than our sector. And the price of this will be failure.

Public services in deprived areas are critical to social development.

And Francis Maude (another of the good guys) ended the fringe surprisingly by saying this will not be orderly. "I don't have a plan! No single thing we do achieves BigSoc". I can see this to a point but it's not good from a Government Minister in a time of turbulence.

So back to my point. If we are about to experience the biggest cuts to public spending in generations we need to be clear that out Politicians have a plan. Telling us it will not be orderly is an abnegation of responsibility by Government.

Let's get a grip!

1 comment:

Nigel said...

It has already become a bit of a joke anyway, at my work, anyone who makes a coffee for anyone else claims to be doing it as part of the Big Society. You are right, if they don't define it and set a plan for it, it will become nothing.