Wednesday 2 February 2011

How to save the big society

Nat Wei, the man charged by the government with making the big society happen, is to cut down his government role from three days to two, because he needs more time to earn money, see his family and "have a life".

"It could become the allegory of the "big society" age", reports the Guardian's Polly Curtis, who also reveals that Wei was only told that his role leading on the government's flagship policy would be voluntary and unpaid at the last minute. This suggests something of a back of the envelope approach. (That decision may have been driven by fear of negative headlines - "Big Society boss paid £60k for 3 day week" - perhaps at the cost of the effectiveness of the government's defining mission, or a sense that it would be too Big State to pay for the role).

Iain Martin of the Wall Street Journal thinks "big society boss too busy for big society" is "you couldn't make it up" stuff, highlighting the risk of the big idea becoming an essentially comedic theme.

The more constructive way to make a similar point would be to note that the big society does need a politics of time, and an account of how to facilitate participation.

This has been largely missing from ministerial advocacy. Ed Miliband highlighted the issue in his speech to the Scottish Labour Party last Autumn, arguing that the time to participate was an economic issue.

Let me tell you also what we understand: the good society depends on the fair economy.

If you are holding down two jobs, working fourteen hour days, worrying about childcare, anxious about elderly relatives, how can you find the time for anything else?

That's why we need an economy which lifts people out of poverty and supports not just a minimum wage but a decent living wage.

Until we address the conditions that mean that people's lives are dominated by long hours, then the big society will always remain a fiction.

As Next Left suggested at the time, "for many people, that would be a significant reality check to the otherwise laudable exhortation to arms and civic engagement at the end of David Cameron's party conference speech this Autumn".

So that great project in your community – go and lead it. The waste in government – go and find it. The new school in your neighbourhood – go and demand it.

The beat meeting on your street – sign up.

The neighbourhood group – join up. That business you always dreamed of – start up.

Read more on the time squeeze and the big society in that earlier post.

The "big society" has had three central problems to date, which still need to be addressed.

Firstly, hyperbole. Encouraging active citizenship has consistently been a central theme for politicians and governments. Jo Grimond, Douglas Hurd, Paddy Ashdown, John Major, David Blunkett, Tony Blair, Charles Kennedy, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Ed Miliband are among those to place a strong emphasis on this. It is a good idea, which can accomodate a range of different approaches. But the language of the Big Society replacing the Big State implied it is an entirely new and revolutionary idea, while the focus on this soundbite much oversold its scope at the cost of addressing the challenges for a practical agenda. This also gave the idea a rather top down feel. Though the whole country was rhetorically invited to form the next government in the Tory manifesto, neither the idea nor the policy agenda was shaped collaboratively in dialogue with those engaged in civic society over the five years of David Cameron's leadership of the Conservatives. To some extent, trying to redress that has been Wei's role since May, but this is unlikely to yield instant political results.

The hyperbole is short-sighted. By 2015, instead of being able to point to incremental progress as the sort of gradual civic progress the government sought to embed, they wil be judged on the claim that the relationship of citizens to public services would be fundamentally transformed by the big society revolution.

So, firstly, the big society ought to be articulated more modestly, if it wants to be judged against tests it might reasonably hope to meet

Second, lack of clarity. Big Society language has become very loosely used by ministers, civil servants and any civic group lobbying government (often in a quite empty and catch all way), but little of this answers the question "what would a big society approach to issue X look like".

That is partly because there are competing and contradictory accounts from the top. David Cameron himself gave starkly different accounts of his big idea in his party conference speech in 2009 - the government is the problem - and his Hugo Young lecture later the same Autumn - focused on the need for government to facilitate the expansion of the big society. The truth as to what motivates the government's agenda is perhaps somewhere in between, but an active policy agenda depends on fleshing out this idea of what the role of government is in facilitating civic action. This government does want to slim the state over time but it does not seem to have a vision of or roadmap to a state taking less than 35-40% of GDP. Despite this, it seems mostly unable to articulate a view of the state in facilitating this agenda, except as a pejorative contrast to what the "big society" is. Despite that rhetorical approach where "state = bad" David Cameron often chooses symbolic issues - increasing NHS spending, or pledging to spend 0.7% of GDP in taxpayer-funded development aid - which implicitly acknowledges a social democratic idea that the state is an appropriate vehicle to enshrine our social commitments to each other, or to the developing world.

Secondly, the big society needs a positive account of the state in facilitating it.

Third, trust. As a poll showed last week, two-thirds of the public don't know what the big society is about. Two-thirds think it is primarily a cover for spending cuts. That is not what its advocates intend.

But they are having to make that point defensively very often, because they know the Big Society idea risks being lost to the austerity agenda, with the voluntary sector retrenching sharply. The question is bound to arise when the government championing the idea is perceived by the general public to be almost exclusively about cutting public spending.

Finally, the big society needs greater distinctiveness from the austerity agenda, including a willingness to challenge cuts which undermine it.

This problem has led to recent reports of tensions between the public champions of the big society, including David Cameron's advisor Steve Hilton and Nat Wei, including in a front-page Times report 'Big Society in Crisis' (a week ago (£) and an earlier Scotland on Sunday report along broadly similar lines.


Unknown said...

Well said Sunder. Recently I've worked on two community projects for free, and have been irritated when people automatically label these 'Big Society'. The Tory campaign to 'engage' the country with their State reduction agenda has captured imaginations but I think the backlash will be considerable if/when people feel they've been manipulated into doing the State's work for free, perhaps when the tax rate comes down for instance. I think that, ultimately, the backlash against Tory Big Society rhetoric will lead to a more selfish society as people retreat into disillusionment (same old Tories); I just hope this cycle runs quickly so that the Labour party has a chance of picking up some of the good things that have happened as a result of the Big Society campaign.
Kind regards
Sam Holmes

Colin Talbot said...

It is a reasonable hypothesis that Big Society participation will strongly relate to social capital. It is not just the long-hours culture, or second jobs. Putnam's work shows, if I'm not mistaken, that the biggest factor undermining social capital is the increase in travel to work times. All three are hard to solve, to put it mildly.


Colin Talbot