Opinion: can the Big Society be anything more than BS?

When the Big Society entered mainstream political debate a few short months ago the concept was relatively vague. Many people no doubt grasped that it was something to do with what government was or wasn’t going to do. And what we might be expected to do for ourselves or organise at a neighbourhood level. Beyond that things got rather murky.

The process of elaborating the concept continues, but at a practical level things move on apace. The June budget cuts, and the prospect of worse to come, have triggered many local councils to reflect upon their role as service provider and explore alternatives. The Big Society is the rather fluid concept being invoked in support of preferred solutions.

We are entering a period of profound change. It could be genuinely transformational. There are potential gains to be made, and many of the ideas being aligned with the Big Society – localism and economic democracy, for example –speak directly to long-standing Liberal Democrat concerns. But there are also significant risks to which we should not, in my view, be indifferent.

We can identify different strands to the way the idea of the Big Society is being deployed in practice.

A Big Society discourse is being used to underpin what would appear primarily to be a return to the (over)zealous privatisation of the Thatcher era. Suffolk County Council is clearly channelling the spirit of Nicholas Ridley in its recent advocacy of turning itself into a contract manager. The conjunction of budgetary pressure and the Big Society idea has opened a window of opportunity to breathe new life into long-cherished strategies to pursue a libertarian ideal of the state.

The enabling authority was, as many will recall, part of the discourse of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It rather foundered on the rocks of contracting. On the one side, we had the hazards presented by the complexities, inflexibilities and transaction costs of arms-length contracting. On the other side lay the challenges to transparency, accountability and probity associated with the relational contracting needed to deliver services successfully. Labour’s advocacy of partnership working was an attempt to square this circle.

The issue hasn’t gone away. What’s more if the Big Society is simply about moving services from the public sector to the private or not-for-profit sector then, even if we believe that is desirable in itself, we are not talking about a strategy that will save vast sums of money.

It may be possible to squeeze out some further efficiency gains through this route, but there are likely to be few places with the headroom to reduce costs by 25% or more and provide the same level of frontline services. And further efficiency gains in areas such as social care provision are likely to be achieved only through seeking economies of scale, which moves away from localism. Some voluntary sector providers in fields such as social care are already being squeezed so hard by local authorities – looking to cope with reductions in their own budgets – they are considering whether there is a long term future in some markets. Local authorities have statutory obligations to ensure that social care needs are met. But voluntary and private sector organisations don’t have similar obligations to meet those needs: if the financial terms are so adverse that a quality service cannot be provided and living wages cannot be paid then for organisations with strong values or reputation to protect withdrawing from provision becomes a realistic possibility.

A second strand in thinking is that the Big Society means government ceasing not only to provide services but also ceasing to fund them. What happens then?

The most radical option is for government to simply step away and pass the responsibility back to communities: if a community can self-organise then that is great for its members, but if it lacks the capacity and are unable to provide the services its members need then that is not the government’s problem. Whether such services are provided on the basis of fees or voluntarily, public sector budgets are reduced. If needs are met voluntarily, without money changing hands, then the formal economy will correspondingly shrink. This scenario would imply a need to review significant swathes of legislation to dilute statutory obligations to meet need, and to review more detailed issues such as requirements for provision to meet minimum standards. To some extent this is already happening with the drive to personalisation. A less radical option is for government to launch a further push to a mixed economy of provision with local authorities acting as a provider of last resort and, possibly, regulating standards. But this option is correspondingly more expensive.

The Big Society poses questions for anyone with a concern for social inequality and territorial justice. We know from a range of sources, including the excellent mapping work being done by the ESRC Third Sector Research Centre, that social capital and voluntary sector capacity vary significantly between areas. Existing voluntary effort to supplement public services is distributed unevenly, with socially advantaged areas being better able to self-organise and self-provide. If we move into a world where we are expecting communities to respond more extensively to state-withdrawal by stepping in as substitute service providers then such inequalities will be accentuated.

The typical solution when looking for engagement and the development of community-led services is to lay the groundwork through capacity building. But, despite protestations to the contrary, the current agenda seems to leave little space for this sort of careful, long-term development work. Indeed, the need to save money has been constructed as so dominant that all over the country the rug is already be pulled from under voluntary sector activities and capacity.

And the least transparent part of the Big Society discourse is that it is not, even with the best will in the world and a fair wind behind it, going to maintain levels of service provision following budget cuts of the scale being contemplated. So this is not about doing the same for less. It is about less all round. More transparency on this point, and the hardships it will cause – not just temporarily but permanently- is needed.

These are not intended as arguments against looking to communities to play a greater role in meeting the needs of their members. But they are arguments against building policy on the basis of an ideal of community which is not always encountered in practice, making incautious assumptions that communities will spontaneously be able to step in. And to raise the question of what happens when communities fall short.

As we move in the direction of greater community self-reliance we need to ensure it doesn’t impact most negatively on the weakest members of society. Or is that simply an inequality we are willing to tolerate? In my view, much more detailed and realistic thinking about how things could work locally needs to be done before we rush headlong into changes that disadvantage the vulnerable yet again.

One thing lacking sufficient prominence in the Big Society discussion is a clear articulation of why the state comes to be involved in certain activities in the first place. And consequently what the risks associated with it withdrawing might be. Support localism wholeheartedly? Certainly. Be alive to its limits? Absolutely. Aspects the welfare state, from the origins of the state retirement pension under the Liberal government of 1906-1914 onwards, were progressive precisely because the socialisation of risk allowed for the provision of comprehensive safety nets: provision which had been out of reach for those who could never accumulate sufficient resources individually or locally to self-insure against systemic or catastrophic risk. The recent health care reform debates in the US illustrate what is at stake. Current discussions on policy towards carers in the UK demonstrate the inequities of expecting families to cope with adverse life events without very much broader structures of social support.

As the New Victorians of the Conservative party seek to catapult the country back to a more hostile era in which, in the name of self-reliance, the vulnerable are expected increasingly to fend for themselves, we would do well to remember the good that the state can achieve – without for one minute ceasing to be concerned about its weaknesses.

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  • I’m as sceptical as the next kid about “The Big Society”…. but please: A Big Society discourse is being used to underpin what would appear primarily to be a return to the (over)zealous privatisation of the Thatcher era ? Um, dont you think there’s a bit of a difference between someone who says “I want to create a Big Society” and someone who says “There is no such thing as society”????

  • The real problem is that the ‘COnservative’ party are no longer ‘COnservative’ in the tradition of Burke. They are not genuinely seeking to ‘conserve’ family values, or ‘conserve’ the constitution…. they are simply motivated by right-wing economics.

    Much worse than being simply ‘conservative’ the conservatives in power at the moment are in fact actively ‘reactionary’ and ‘regressive’ not on a social front but on the front of economic redistribution.

    THe main fallacy at the heart of their doctrine is that the people who get the most money intrinsically deserve it for being, presumably, the most ;intelligent’. It is a form of social Darwinism whcih seeks to blame the people less well off in society for their own weekness… due to their lack of ‘ability’. Of course it is not empirically justified or logically choerent, for example Professors, researchers, teachers, jounolists ofl have higher IQ’s or simply higher ‘abilities’… yet they are paid less for other reasons…. mainly because they are prepared to be paid less, or because most people do not think they rely on university professors in order to ‘live’ their everdyday lives, but they do depend on the people running Matalan or Burger King.

    It is also due to ann increased level of selfishness and lack of compassion which has been brought about both by Thatcherism and the right-wing media.

    So yes. No longer are they ‘conservatives’ they want to turn the clock back to the Victorian times because that was when the poor accepted that was then the ‘survival of the fittest’ where the rich are of course the fittest.

    The truth of the matter is that the people who get the highest paid positions in some professions are not the most ‘intelligent’, but the luckiest, the most sycophantic, the most ruthless and the most emotionally and morally dead people…. or just the people who come from the right families, know the right people and have had the right education.

  • @MBoy

    ‘I’m as sceptical as the next kid about “The Big Society”…. but please: A Big Society discourse is being used to underpin what would appear primarily to be a return to the (over)zealous privatisation of the Thatcher era ? Um, dont you think there’s a bit of a difference between someone who says “I want to create a Big Society” and someone who says “There is no such thing as society”????”

    Not if you believe that everything that Cameron says is meaningless. Like the term ‘progressive conservative’. The re is essntially no difference between the ‘big society’ and ‘no society’… they both mean the same thing in the Orwellian sense.

    What Thatcher meant by it was that there is no meta-society… there are only the actions of individuals. Cameron’s ‘big society’ is a intellectually-dishonest way of saying exactly the same thing. Only individuals should be left to change society, the pressure should be on individuals to do something…. the state or even ‘society’ in the way we actually use the word should take no role in public service.

    Of course in an age when Thatcherism has recked any sense of communitarian solidarity, the effects will not be good.

    Cameron uses the term ‘Big Society’ to describe this bullshit philosophy precisely because he wanted to distance himself from Thatcher who accurately described it as ‘no society’/

  • Stupendous article.

    Serious and considered.

  • George W. Potter 28th Sep '10 - 6:51pm

    All the conservative councils I know, rather than encouraging Big Society concepts, just seem straining at the leash to flog things off to the highest bidder. An example is the leisure centre in Guildford. After millions spent on building it the council wants to sell it off to a business who’d then be paid to run it for them. Meanwhile, a proposal by the existing staff to form a trust to carry on managing it independent of the council was rejected out of hand.

  • Not if you believe that everything that Cameron says is meaningless.

    Ah, I see. That’s the difference between us then. I think Cameron is a politician, not the anti-Christ.

  • <i. I think Cameron is a politician, not the anti-Christ.

    Au contraire, that is the similarity between us, for everything politicians say is meaningless :).

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Sep '10 - 10:43am

    The phrase “Big Society” is being used on a far grander scale for what was some years ago called “Care in the Community”. That is, where “Care in the community” was about dealing with people with health care needs, “Big Society” is about many more things the state does.

    The theory of “Care in the community” was very good – instead of having people shut up in big state-run or state-financed institutions, they would be integratd in the more general community. The practice was “we’ll release the large amounts of money that can be raised by selling off the land the institutions are on, and well … we’ll chuck the residents out and somehow ‘the community’ will look after them”.

    As Mrs Thatcher wisely reminded us “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people”. You can put “community” here instead of society, and it still works.

    So, it needs people to get together and do things. If everyone is sitting round waiting for “society” to do things, it won’t happen. Of course, we know people will do things for money. This is the basis on which many things happen. Someone will see a “gap in the market” and fill it. However, I don’t think this is what “Big Society” means, otherwise we might just as well say “capitalism” and be done with. It seems to mean instead people coming together and doing things which are socially useful but do not make money.

    Well, that is what the state is for. If there are things which everyone wants doing but no-one will be first to do it voluntarily, there’s no money to be mae by doing it, and it’s advantageous not to do it and just hope everyone else will do it, we get together as the state and do it. Consider refuse collection – the reason it’s a (local) state thing is not because I just want my rubbish taken away, I want all my neighbours’ rubbish taken away. If it was voluntary, I might conscientiously get it done, my dirtier and less caring neighbours might not, or might hope I was so disgusted by their rubbish piling on the street that I’d do it for them (this is figurative of course – my real neighbours are nice people who I’m sure would not think like this).

    In the “Big Society” idea, we are going to volunteer to do things like this, organise rubbish clearing gangs and so on. Well, maybe not with refuse collection, but with other things where we might previously have liked the state to do it. I am not sure, however, how it is proposed to deal with the issue that some people are conscientious and some are not, and conscientious people often give up in despair when they find being conscientious means everyone else just relies on you to do it and you end up doing lots of hard work while they enjoy the results with no personal effort.

    Free market extremists are very keen on the idea that the existence of the state is the problem, it has caused us to lose our co-operative ideals so we sit around waiting for the state to do things, whereas without the state we would do it ourselves, in the case of welfare issues, organised into charities. One of the things the free market people here don’t like to admit is that in the past, pre welfare state, an awful lot of that charitable work was done by religious organisations. Perhaps that is why this idea works better now in the USA because the USA has a lot more religion than here. If you look back in the past in this country, see how many things were done by nuns, for example. I am told the average age of nuns in England is about 80 – they are dying out, no-one becomes a nun any more. There isn’t actually much replacing that sort of thing.

    So, the religious impulse used to be an alternative to the cash impulse to get things done, it is no more. The other things that used to work to bring people working togther co-operatively are also pretty sickly. Trade Unions, political parties, working men’s clubs, Freemasons, etc – all these things are pretty much in terminal decline as mass organisations. We live in a place where big business is pretty much the only organising power outside the state, and the state has ceded much to big business in recent decades. I cannot see where “Big Society” is going to come from in this situation.

    What the free market extremists also won’t admit is the extent to which big business envervated us in much the same way as they always say the state has. We rely on big business to provide us with almost everything, we suppose it is just there provided by big business for cash. It is really quite amazing to find whole areas in those places of high unemployment where there are vast numbers of people with needs who could be providing each other with those needs, but instead wait for welfare cash payments and use that cash to provide for those needs through faceless big business. So much of the big business capaitalist culture fed to us has been about driving us to that utter dependency on them, about smashing the human bonds that used to exist. At one time, the businesess people deal with would primarily be local firms, run by locals, so run by people who had some attachment to the community. Now they are branches of big corporations, whose attachment to the community is shown by their threats to up and base thermselves in some other country if we dare, when our country is in great need, to ask them to contribute a bigger share of their profits in tax. I cannot see where “Big Society” is going to come from in this situation.

    Some of this “Big Society” idealism seems to come from wealthy people with plenty of spare money who see people like themselves getting together to organise things, and wonder why more can’t be done like that. Why is it that in the small rural (and wealthy) community where my mother lived (she moved to a slightly less wealthy one a few years back) there was so much more organisation than the London council estate I represented as a councillor? Partly I think this has to do with the smashing of working class culture here, by a combination of big business domination and … things we liberals don’t like to talk about. But partly it’s that wealth thing – poor people have been driven to work harder on the grounds of “efficiency”. One reason I’m no longer a councillor is because I work in the public sector, and relentless targeting in my job means I can no longer take the career decision not to put too much effort into that job in order to be able to do voluntary things like being a councillor. If I am chained to paying a high rent (thanks to council housing being no longer available to all but the extreme feckless) or a high mortgage (thanks to house prices rising so high) I certainly cannot be a volunteer in “Big Society”.

    So, I think it clear that everything that has happened in the past few decades has more or less driven out “Big Society” and all that would be needed to re-establish it. It is hypocritical of the likes of Mr Cameron to harp on about it, when it is the ideology he endorses, the ideology so central to his political party, which has destroyed even the vestiges of “Big Society” that once existed.

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