Big society: More than a soundbite?

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It is a "coral reef" and we are the fishes.

It is the hidden hand behind all government action.

It is everywhere and nowhere at once.

It is, in case you hadn't guessed by now, the "big society".

When David Cameron unveiled his vision of a more socially active Britain - in which volunteers would step in to take the place of an over-mighty state - some Conservative election candidates were incredulous.

How were they supposed to sell this woolly nonsense on the doorstep? What did "the big society" even mean?

But Mr Cameron was deadly serious - and eight months down the line, far from being quietly dropped as some assumed, or hoped, it might be, the big society is being pursued with surprising vigour across Whitehall.

Start Quote

You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society”

End Quote David Cameron, July 2010

Everything from proposals to "mutualise" post offices to a campaign to eradicate common ragwort from the British countryside have been talked up as examples of "the big society in action", as ministers and civil servants fall over themselves to show they are on board with the prime minister's favourite project.

Some of this activity stems from a natural desire to please the new boss.

"There are things we are already doing we are trying to re-badge as big society - trying to show that they are in line with the big society," said one civil servant in a large Whitehall department, who did not want to be named.

And there is still confusion among civil servants about what the big society actually means - despite an on-going series of seminars across Whitehall to explain it.

'Impact'

But, according to Tony Blair's former policy chief, Matthew Taylor, a man familiar with the inner workings, and frustrations, of the government machine, there are signs that "the big society" is becoming more than just a "passing fad".

'THE BIG SOCIETY IN ACTION'

  • Tackling Common Ragwort - Defra press release, August 2010
  • Campaign to protect farmland diversity - Defra, August 2010
  • Plan to cut street clutter - Transport, August 2010
  • The Big Tidy Up - September 2010
  • Emergency flooding response exercise in England and Wales - Defra, September 2010
  • Transferring NHS staff into social enterprises - Health, November 2010
  • £400m for carers' breaks - Health, November 2010
  • Patients rating dentists online - Health, December 2010
  • New guide to rating decline of local high streets - Business, November 2010
  • Plan to 'mutualise' post offices - Business, October 2010

"What has been good is that they have stuck with the idea. It is not just a soundbite. It is something that they mean," he says.

"There are signs now of the idea starting to make an impact across government."

When Tony Blair came to power in 1997 he also had a big idea that many struggled to understand - The Third Way. But it slowly died a death because nobody but Mr Blair had any real interest in it.

Could the "big society" suffer a similar fate?

"The big society is not something which waxes and wanes depending on the popularity of David Cameron. In that sense, it is more successful than the Third Way," says Matthew Taylor.

"I think The Third Way had some good ideas, but people didn't really buy into it. In the end, it was just Tony Blair."

Start Quote

The third level at which the big society seems to operate beyond asking the question and setting out policies is that of nurturing an ecosystem. I describe this as the big society coral reef”

End Quote Lord Wei Government "big society" guru

Labour initially dismissed the big society idea as a con trick - a cynical attempt to slap a smiling face on savage spending cuts.

But cannier shadow ministers began to wonder whether they should be praising the big society, not burying it.

After all, who could argue with being nicer to your neighbours? Or devoting more time to the community?

Now Labour leader Ed Miliband says he is determined to claim the concept for his party.

He is putting together a team of advisers to explore how to breathe new life into local communities by strengthening local institutions such as post offices and libraries, rather than handing them over to volunteers.

The real test for "the big society", those on the left argue, is the impact it will have in poorer parts of the country, particularly when funding is being cut to many voluntary groups and community projects.

"If the big society is going to be powerful, its power must be felt in deprived communities," says Matthew Taylor, who is chief executive of The Royal Society of Arts.

Mr Cameron and the other architects of the concept represent relatively affluent constituencies, in rural areas, were there is a settled population and plenty of fit and active retired people with time on their hands for volunteering.

Start Quote

Britain is a Big Society today - generous, volunteering, caring, full of social initiative and enterprise. We helped it grow - we didn't stand in the way or stand aside”

End Quote Tessa Jowell Shadow Cabinet Office minister

It is a very different story, argues Mr Taylor, in the inner cities, where the coalition's cuts are likely to hit the hardest - and where people often lack the confidence, or the spare time, to take over services such as libraries and community centres that might be facing closure.

A former local government regeneration chief, who did not want to be named, put it more bluntly: "The government are completely unrealistic about what it means to someone living on an inner city housing estate. They haven't got a bloody clue."

Lord Wei, the government's Mr Big Society - who described it as a "coral reef" in his maiden House of Lords speech - counters such criticism by pointing to the creation of the Big Society Bank, which will raid dormant bank accounts to provide up to £100m for community projects, from April.

There are also plans to despatch 5,000 community organisers into different parts of the country to try and get volunteers to work together more effectively.

Trust

But critics say even voluntary groups and local authorities who genuinely want to get involved with the "big society", lack the funds to do so - and are struggling to work out what the concept really means, as ministers have been steadfast in their refusal to spell it out.

"For those who hunger for simplicity and for administrative tidiness, for there to be a White Paper which can kind of set out exactly what's going to happen, it's not going to be like that," said Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude when pressed for a definition on BBC Radio 4's PM programme.

Dad's Army Some well-meaning volunteers may turn out to be bungling amateurs

"The result of a big, strong society is that it will be administratively untidy. People will come together to do things in different ways and different places."

In the end, it may come down to the willingness of civil servants and other professionals to trust the public, when handing over control of services, and in some cases funds, to groups of well-intentioned amateurs.

Inevitably, some of these groups will turn out to be bungling amateurs, but ministers say they are relaxed about this too.

Tory policy chief Oliver Letwin, giving evidence to a select committee last week, summed up the government's self-consciously upbeat philosophy.

"Our intuition is that people are more likely to do great things - to innovate, to make things better - if they have a great deal of scope for creativity and a great deal of ability to make things happen on the ground.

"And as long as those who do it well succeed, and those who do it badly fail, you get an increasing drift towards success."

He was talking about giving more freedom to public servants, but it might equally work as a definition of "the big society", at least until something more concrete begins to emerge.

Unless, in what might be an example of the concept in action, you can think of a better one...

Here is a selection of your comments:

My wife has been replaced at our local hospital by a volunteer. Now we both have no income. If this is a by product of a "big society", then you can keep it. Chris, Norwich

Isn't this just a case of putting a socially friendly brand name on a concept that's already in place? Take, for example, the Territorial Army, Special Constables & St. Johns Ambulance, Lifeguards, volunteer outreach workers etc. - These established volunteer groups have been around for a considerable time, and popularising them seems to be the key to the PM's budgeting. However, while the majority of Britain may be generous, giving etc., there has to be a fair balance. individuals offering more to a governemnt that has already demanded so much, might be pushing it just a bit too much, no matter how they dress it up. Mike, Essex

One would hope that a "policy chief" would have more sense than to say something as naive as "And as long as those who do it well succeed, and those who do it badly fail, you get an increasing drift towards success." That would have been embarrassing even in his undergraduate speeches at Cambridge, some of which I sat through. Who pays the liability insurance for the bungling amateurs? Who monitors their standards? What happens if the more successful amateurs refuse to move to parts of the country where there are no services because all the locals bungled it? Ian, Biggleswade, UK

The 'Big Society' already exists. The clever thing is that any social philanthropy will now appear as David Cameron's doing, part of his philosophy. And cleverer still, it allows deep cuts to be masked by a society where things still get done, but now for free. Whereas previously a society in recession would stagnate, now Mr Cameron's Eton classmates will enjoy a future of tax cuts because hordes of pensioners and unemployed public sector workers will be fixing your roads and cleaning your streets for free. Genius. How about a volunteer Government? Mark, Southampton

It is not surprising that the idea of the "Big Society" is gaining momentum in Whitehall because it has one brilliant political feature, when something does or does not happen, when something doesn't go well it is not the governments fault - it is the fault of everyone else - it is societies fault. You can just imagine Sir Humphrey explaining this to his minister... In truth the Big Society is a Chimera because it is just another way of describing what already exists, people doing things for the common good, paid and unpaid. What seems to have been forgotten is that a lot of people have made decisions that they would rather pay someone else to do that work than spend their own time organising or participating. In more affluent societies that's what happens with time poor individuals. So will the Big Society as conceived by Cameron lead to a patchwork of inefficient local initiatives that are totally inconsistent and doomed to failure in the long term as people loose interest and spend their time on other things? Steve, London

Oliver Letwin is quoted as saying, "And as long as those who do it well succeed, and those who do it badly fail, you get an increasing drift towards success." That is all well and good as long as the failure is recognised. I would hate to see the government perpetually funding failed attempts at volunteers running services because they do not have the systems or checks in place to stop funding and replace the volunteers. As long as there is some sort of effective oversight for the Big Society then it can work. The big test will be the first couple of failures and how long it takes for someone to say, "this isn't working." Jay, UK

I think that the 'Big Society' is something that everyone intrinsically understands from the point of view of 'help your neighbour'. On our street we have an older couple who have lived here for several decades. When he went into hospital, she was given daily rides to see him, dinners and lots of support - it wasn't co-ordinated, people just felt the need to help. 'London Citizens' is a good example - people band together to make positive changes such as 'City Safe' which asks local businesses to become 'Safe Havens' for youngsters threatened in the streets for example. I think that more people would get involved in the Big Society if they could quantify how it would positively affect their own environment and as such, should always be looked at from a local point of view. S Brethes, London

Catchy phrase for a vague concept... that has actually been around for donkey's years and has a pretty patchy record. A threatened railway station was successfully taken over by a local private school, whilst a major plan to reopen a closed line has remained a plan for 30+years due to amateurs 'playing with trains', plus lack of direction and council support. But perhaps the most relevant insight is from Matthew Taylor, as echoed on BBC Breakfast today. Taking over a library is easier if you're in an affluent area with plenty of middle aged, middle class do-gooders with too much time on their hands. It's only when this type of person is willing to give a bit more than patronising advice to the poorer section of society will we truly have a 'Big' society. anglowelsh, Wales

The policy is total eyewash - it is just a cynical pretence that is meant to suggest that the Tories actually care about disadvantaged people. Arthur, South Shields

"The Big Society" is only what vast numbers of people have been doing for decades in the UK. I am the eldest of 5 and my mother always used to say "keep them busy and they stay out of mischief" and we belonged to youth clubs, guides, scouts, st. john ambulance among many others and also did fund raising for large and small charities. It was never administered or organised, we just did what we fancied. And it meant TV was just a last resort when there was nothing else to do. I learnt all sorts of extra skills that have been a huge benefit and there is very little I regret in life now that I am in my 50s. There are loads of volunteering websites and they will be delighted to hear from you. Trust me - you get just as much out of it as you put into it. LP, South Wales

I think Big Society is a big con. Yes, of course I wish more people would do more for their communities - give time to charities, be volunteers for this and that. But it is NO SUBSTITUTE for properly run, properly resourced public services. And I have no doubt whatsoever that it is an attempt to get things that should be good quality public services on the cheap. In many cases this will result in poorer, piecemeal services with untrained and unsupported staff. In the worst case this is potentially dangerous. Yes, if BS means a branch library that would have closed can remain open, then I'm all for it. If it means that challenging young people with complex needs on an education project get either no input or input by dangerously untrained and unsupervised volunteers (which I think is the kind of thing that is going to happen) then I most definitely am not. Penny, Devon

I chair a local Community Group, all volunteers and not for profit. We provide exercise activities for disabled children in our area. We function pretty much how I understand the Big Society should do - volunteers running services well and being provided with funds to do so from the public purse. Unfortunately the public purse only has cobwebs in it now - the public bodies who used to fund our work are being discontinued and can no longer fund us. Private business, who Mr Cameron assures us will mount the white charger and come to our rescue? Let's just say that they aren't falling over themselves to help. The few who do respond point out (quite fairly) that charity begins at home and they're not making much profit right now. I'm sure that we're just one of hundreds of similar stories nationwide. You already had a Big Society Mr Cameron, you've just taken away their ability to provide services and replaced it with woolly words and empty promises. S Ward, Nottingham

Maybe senior Conservatives had their local communities in rural villages in Buckinghamshire or Wiltshire in mind when they came up with the big society... where mutualising the local post office and protecting farmland diversity are big issues and where people might endeavour to take on these things if given the chance in an official way... but in Lewisham, round me, I just don't see that happening. This whole notion is based around a small, close-knit and familiar community of small rural towns and villages... not the large informal ones of inner cities. Jack, London

Its about getting retired old busy bodies with nice comfortable pensions and time on their hands to take on the jobs of those younger less fortunate members of society who have no jobs, pensions and indeed no future, sacked as a consequence of the spending cuts imposed by this Tory government. It conjures up twee visions of England gone by, the village fete, tea parties, cricket on the green, Dad's Army and the Vicar of Dibley when the reality will be Dickensian levels of poverty, ill-health and social division. Ian, Marske by the Sea, Cleveland

I wonder how long it took Conservative think tanks or advertising people to come up with the name The Big Society after studying Green Party or Liberal Party policy over the last 40 years. Whatever the answer, the Big Society should be embraced as a means to bring back the human scale to communities. Tom, Chester

The purpose of the Big Society is to offload Government and Local Authority spending, by delegating it to unpaid volunteers. As a Parish Councillor, I'm seeing this "on the ground". However, some of this is simply not possible. Would you want a willing neighbour, with no knowledge of Civil Engineering, to patch the frost-blown holes in your road? If the neighbour botches it, which is more than likely, who would the insurance claim from - the Parish Council, the neighbour, or the senior Local Authorities whose delegation led to the situation? Sounds unreasonable? Our County Council is rumoured to want us to take over road repair in our Parish, but without giving us the cash to do it. That alone would probably empty the Parish coffers, including the coming Precept funds, in less than a year. Step up, the Big Society. Anyone know how to fix a street light? Jon, Cambridge

In my current position, I visit several Citizens Advice Bureaux. Each one is a registered charity which relies heavily on volunteers and is part funded through local authority funds and part through Legal Services Commission. Each and every one are currently going through redundancy procedures with their paid staff (support and administration mainly) because local authorities are struggling to find monies. By 2012, the LSC are looking to remove all legal aid except for the most severe cases (e.g. actual homelessness - not threatened, loss of liberty, threat to life). There will be no money to employ caseworkers to deal with debt problems, benefit enquiries, employment issues etc. There is a serious risk that some Bureaux will close completely. Whilst the "Big Society" seems to be a clear and welcome effort, it cannot succeed if the basic infrastructure (i.e. Charities and NfP organisations) no longer exists. Simon, Oldham

Why doesn't someone just say that the Big Society is what we're going to need if the vacuum left by a decimated Big Government is left unfilled. It's going to be administratively untidy because the Conservatives want nothing to do with it, nor do they want their affluent supporters to pay for the administration or regulation of it. The Big Society is being dressed up as developing civil society for rhetorical reasons - like we are supposed to blame ourselves if there are social problems caused by removing the welfare state. We have a civil society - that's what makes us civilised - and I like contributing to its upkeep by giving some of the time spent doing my own job (in which I have skills) in the form of taxes to other people who are skilled at doing their jobs. Dominic, Darlington

So, as far as I can see, the government expect the tax-payers to volunteer to do the things their taxes are paying for. Really - who in this country can afford to work for free? I certainly can't. And running something as important as a library is a full-time job for multiple people. And requires skill and experience. Voluntary work isn't free - it costs money to run it. So those twits in government think we should pay for the privilege running these services as well as working for free. It can't possibly work, it will never take off. And while I am paying taxes for a service I expect the government to supply it - or give me my money back. Sandy, Derby

The sort of behaviour needed to create the big society is part of Britain's culture, or not. Government can influence and encourage this sort of change in culture but it will take many years. The idea that this can take up the slack from cuts in funding to public services in the next 12 months is fantasy. JWN1961, Peterborough

The "Big Society" is communitarianistic nonsense and should be treated as the individual squashing, fabianistic bilge it really is. Want to see more voluntary work Mr. Cameron? Stop robbing half my income or putting it on the shoulders of my children and grandchildren in the form of inter-generational debt. Thom, Leeds

It is a blatant attempt to dismantle a system which guarantees a right to all citizens to have a minimum standard of living. This consists not only of the basics of food and shelter but libraries and museums and universities which don't cripple even the slightly better off for years ahead. I am one of the "do-gooders" who donate time to the local community and have done this willingly - and will continue to do so without financial reward - but I see this as over and above the provision of basic services. Charities are struggling to raise enough funds to keep going... I don't want to rely on the whims of local "do-gooders" to provide basic services. Britain is following the lead of America and I, for one, despair. Hazel, Dartington

Ask not what the Big Society can do for you...Since I work full time, leave the house at 7 and get home at 6 (and I'm sure many people are out of the house longer hours) I have 1 1/2 hours in the evening with my children before their bed time. The weekends are family time. What does the Big Society want from me? RJ, London

At last we have a government mantra which actually resonates with the people! If it hadn't taken root the idea would have been dropped by now in line with similar schemes raised by other governments. Now we need to see if Labour will accept that this is a "good idea" from the Conservatives and not just claim it for Labour's own political ends which has been their tendency over the last few years. If Labour takes that step into line, the concept can really take hold across society and we can start to "put the people back in government". We don't need party political bickering, we need to just get on with it, especially when the financial situation is predicating total commitment from the country. Michael, Warboys

I think the Labour party is being too pessimistic. Having worked with groups such as young carers I know that there are a large number of people who are very willing to give up there time for others. I know many readers genuinely care for their communities and posses a drive to help others, I can't foresee any problem in getting volunteers into inner city areas. Edward, Ampleforth

Big Society in my area means the choice at Parish Council level of losing your services in the rural areas, or paying more on the Parish council tax to keep them. This equates to paying for services twice, once for local areas and again for the nearby towns where the same services are to be kept. We have seen this in our libraries already. Rural residents are now being asked to pay more to keep their local library, as well as continuing to pay for the council run ones that they cannot travel to. john, IOW

This sounds really bad - has nobody else noticed this is rather similar to the DoSac Fourth Sector Initiative from the TV series The Thick of It? Has Cameron been secretly writing scripts for the BBC? Paul, Reading

Our high street is already run to a great deal by volunteers. The result: Constant decline. Volunteers don't earn money they can spend in shops. The shops have less to invest. Business tax income for the council goes down. An economy in crisis needs proper jobs, properly paid, not its main commodity, services (in the absence of manufacturing), being taken over by volunteers. Arnim Friess, Leamington Spa

The big problem I have with the Big Society, as does the charity I am co-chair of, is that the phrase is being used day after day, but us at the coal face of running a charity have no idea, have been sent no information and cannot find any information on the Big Society! Are we supposed to be psychic to work out what it's all about? We've been planning how the charity can assist, but with no information, it's trying to find a small tiny needle in a huge haystack! Dan, London, UK

'Big Society' - aren't these the things that local government, local NHS etc used to do before they were encouraged to perform like 'Big Business'? And don't volunteers and the local community already do more than their fair share in, for example, providing hospice care? This is certainly the case here in Cornwall. I'm afraid, Mr Cameron, that your vision of the 'Big Society' merely asks those of us fund-raising to introduce or maintain what should be basic health care (hospice care, care for sufferers of multiple sclerosis, ongoing breast cancer care, oncological services) to do more to replace what we always assumed our tax and National Insurance were supposed to provide. You'll be asking us next, to pull together to support overpaid public servants and bankers! Dianne Seale, Truro, UK

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