The idea of the Big Society has certainly grabbed attention and excited a great deal of comment and debate; not always flattering though not exclusively negative.

It is hard to imagine where the idea of the Big Society might lead when the root of the idea is so unclear. Tim Montgomerie at ConservativeHome, while making every effort to be supportive, manages to only draw attention to the fluffy nature of the thinking around what is presented as David Cameron’s big idea.

There is the sense of things not being quite right when a speech on the subject is heralded in the press as the fourth ‘re-launch’.  Once a product fails in the market, the product needs reinvention, not just the message.

Just as Cameron’s project in advance of the 2010 election was evidenced more by photo opportunity than any coherent or constructed big idea within which his Conservatism could be identified, so too the Big Society struggles to find a convincing narrative based on substance.

In an effort to detox the perception of the Conservative brand as ‘nasty’ and ‘right-wing’, Cameron sought to project a Conservatism that was compassionate, modern, progressive (was it one, or all or an amalgam of parts) and he has used words to convey the idea of the Big Society similarly: voluntary, local, empowering, community.

To re-make, or realign, the Conservative Party, Cameron created a narrative for his type of conservatism without actually defining it. This allowed others to project on the Conservative Party a set of values that might suit a majority of the electorate.  It was a New Labour style remake, but without the combination of easy charm and quiet ruthlessness contained within the Labour troika of Blair, Mandelson and Brown.

The result of the 2010 Parliamentary elections showed that the Cameron project failed to convince enough that there was a serious and coherent alternative to a Labour Government that was hugely disliked; even in the context of a harsh economic recession. Perhaps this could be put down to the fact that hugging a hoodie or harnessing a huskie were images that by the time of 2010 seemed irrelevant in the midst of fiscal meltdown and burgeoning deficit.  The addition of the idea of the Big Society into the final stages of the Cameron project had little impact on the broader political discourse.

That Cameron failed to win the 2010 election has left a nagging doubt, both within the Conservative Party and the wider country. The uncertainty around the narrative of the Conservative agenda going into the election has extended into coalition Government and a lurking question on what it stands for generally, domestically: though most evidently in defence / foreign affairs. The Conservative’s policy uncertainty is the tender underbelly of the coalition, and this lies at David Cameron’s door.

From wherever the idea of the Big Society emerged, there has been little chance for the Conservatives, and especially David Cameron, to embed it into or across Government. The same lack of definition and clarity, and agreed or known agenda, at the outset in respect of the Big Society seems to be bugging every other aspect of Government policy. So ill-defined is the Big Society, however, it has the potential to become the metaphor for David Cameron’s term as Prime Minister – well-meaning, but largely without substance.

Big Society harks back to a more civil or civic Britain. There is nothing wrong with that.  The problem seems to be that the idea has come before the thinking as to how the elements and structural components of a more civic-minded society might be resurrected where necessary and strengthened where present.

The Big Society lacks the substantial intellectual or practical base on which to build a bigger idea.  From what has been said about the Big Society, so far, there are two questions that need answered before the idea can gather some momentum.

The first and most important question is to ask what the State should be funding, directly or indirectly, in the first instance and what would be better left to others: that may be described as the private sector, but more locally this might be community or local service delivery if desired.

Here we have the first key debate that has simply been avoided by those promoting the Big Society. Society cannot be responsible without being free to deliver local services, with perhaps the minimal indulgence from the public sector where appropriate. Guido best outlines the political challenge of the Big Society: that it is possible only with a smaller State. He sums the case up neatly:

“A charity that relies in the main part on taxes is no more a charity than a prostitute is your girlfriend.

Others see it not as a zero sum game, but lost in it’s own ambiguity:

“We are told that the choice is between Cameron’s Big Society or the Big State. Right now the big problem is that we are getting both, when we surely would be better off with neither.”

Second, if there is a desire to reduce the role of the public sector, is there any reason to believe that the voluntary/charitable sector, can be more efficient or accountable at a local level.  Are big charities more accountable than local government? The only obvious potential benefit from large charitable enterprises taking over from local or central government is the potential for a change in ways of working that also brings greater efficiency and productivity while also delivering an improved service.

How is service delivery to be measured?  If it is targeted performance on cost or unit addressed, how different is this in respect of Labour target setting?  How do you, in the social field, measure service?  There would be a case to be made for broad outcomes being set and alternative presentations being made as to how those outcomes might be met. But who in Government would be prepared to take the risk?  The process of change would be slow and, like windpower, would probably require some level of fall-back cover. Would there need to be an OfSoc?

Proof perhaps that the potential of the Big Society may be slow in coming. Small acorns? What will be needed is a huge amount of willingness and willing support from local government in particular. The biggest issue at the local level is that while many will have good ideas, or willingness to provide a service to the community and willing to put the effort into fund-raising and leading volunteers, some will fail. This is inevitable. There is no use demanding paperwork, that makes the effort a burden, or quoting regulations and presenting costs that in effect create barriers.  For the Big Society to work it has to have the support of Ken Norman – a happy ending in due course, but why the battle in the first place?

The most worrying encounter with Government was recently attending a conference organised by DEFRA where the principal of a conservation body speaking to the participants, in the presence of the relevant Minister, talked about the DEFRA ‘family’. Who’s the daddy? The Nanny State replaced by that paternalist One Nation Big Daddy?

There is the rub for the Conservative ‘Big Society’. Presented by David Cameron it has the smack of the big house, paternal shire Tory. The notion of Big Society is that the locals can organise a fete in the garden once a year and every now and then there is a party hosted inside. Of course worthy causes have extended from the church restoration fund and Poppy collection.

Translating paternalistic tendencies into a realisable policy for rebalancing society would be a tall order at any time. But launching an idea such as Big Society without any definition has shunted to one side the real debate that is needed – shrinking government or encouraging alternative delivery of services through open competition for ideas and alternative providers.

With only the outline of an idea, and even then mostly words and inflection towards purpose, an encouragement to embrace Big Society has allowed the appropriation of the terminology by many in Government and the ‘social sector’ in a way which specifically undermines the notion of local and voluntary engagement.

In Northern Ireland, the community and voluntary sector is the second larger employer, with the public sector as No1. Actually, there is little difference. The community and voluntary sector has become, in effect, an extension of the public sector: with contracts being awarded for many community/social services. But there is little voluntarism. The only cost saving is the absence of pension liability and lower wages on short-term contract.  That is not in itself a bad thing if cost-cutting is the only objective, but having to adopt all the policy and procedures of the public sector there is little or no innovation and therefore little room for improvement in service delivery process. On the contrary it squeezes the small, nimble and innovative providing fresh and better focused (often narrow and specialist) service.

Northern Ireland is no example of Big Society, just big cumbersome Government. Better that Cameron does a pause on Big Society, do an audit of what is practicably and more immediately available within Government to be hived off, and launch with a bit more focus on how the idea might just work in the real world. People would welcome a Big Society, so long as it does not replace Nanny with Daddy.






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