Milligan's week: Bigger than all of us

By Becky Milligan
BBC Radio 4's World at One


I was shown into Francis Maude's office, sodden from a sudden downpour, black mascara smeared down to my chin, but still optimistic.

What a plush office - terrific view of Horse Guards Parade, and Buckingham Palace down the way.

The paintings on the wall looked vaguely familiar. I asked the Cabinet Officer minister who the artist was.

"I have no idea", he replied languidly.

Adding that he was very, very relaxed, in fact the most relaxed person in the world, "isn't that right?"

His special adviser confirmed this assertion: "Absolutely."

"Horizontal?," I asked.

"Almost completely inert," he answered.

The Big Lunch

This week I've been reporting on the Big Society - the coalition's Big Idea for shrinking the state.

I don't know if you've ever bothered to look it up on the internet but my advice is, don't.

Sooooo much to read. Pages and pages, high rises of the stuff, lots and lots and lots of words.

Words like: Transparency, "new horizons", empowering, encouraging, enabling, "bottom-up" - never "top-down" - signposting, opportunity and, of course, truck loads of freedom.

This is big. Really BIG. There's even the Big Lunch (really). It has a chairman and a CEO.

But it's not about them - it's about us. All of us.

You can leave them out of this. It's between you and me.

If only I could find out where they keep it.

But first a tour of their offices in Whitehall, located with the Cabinet Office.

The place is "buzzing" my guide told me, as we toured their offices in the Cabinet Office, a stone's throw from 10 Downing Street.

"Is that something to do with it?," I asked, pointing to a banner pinned on the wall, which read: "Making Government Work Better."

"Err no, that's what the Cabinet Office does…generally …'s a core thing."

'Social action'

After walking down corridors and up and down stairs, like Alice down the rabbit hole, we eventually came to a very quiet office, where four or five people, spaced well apart, were sitting.

They talked in hushed whispers. My guide announced that we were now in the Office for Civil Society; the people in these offices drive the Big Society agenda.

"Is the Civil Society, the Big Society?" I asked.

My guide looked perplexed.

"Is it a sub-section?," I went on. Hoping I might understand.

Image caption, Alice would have felt at home in the Cabinet Office

"Oh yes, it has an important role in organising social action, it also has the power to do things, and so forth."

Ah ha. OK. Got it.

But do I? Do I get it? I'm feeling pretty stupid now. I keep asking the same question.

"So it's all part of the Big Society thing?"

"Yes, it's at it's very core; New ways of doing things, getting into communities, organising people, doing what they already do, but given more opportunities to do it."

Top gun

A woman came along to help de-mush my brain. She seemed in charge of things.

"It happened when we merged with the social exclusion task force," she said, setting off a distant bell in my memory.

"What is the social exclusion task force?," I asked hopefully, hoping to pick up a clue.

"It isn't." She said, and then more firmly: "It is no more."

"But was it roughly the same thing?"

"No. That was under Labour."

"No, I see."

"Before that it was the Office for the Third Sector," my guide chipped in.

Later on my tour, in another office, a scrappy piece of red tape was stuck with sellotape to the wall with a notice, "CUT RED TAPE," and "MAKE IT EASIER."

That's not a bad idea, and I overheard that the government's top gun on Cutting Red Tape will talk about it publicly soon.

"It's all about, how do I get more bang for my buck," the woman told me. "It's all about the Transparency Agenda."

"What, the Big Society?"

'Out of the loop'

At this point my guides gave up, they didn't want to waste anymore time.

But it's not such bad idea is it, and not new, and who could possibly disagree with being nicer? More caring? Smiling?

I ask Francis Maude how we will know if it is happening.

"This cannot be measured, there are no targets, it won't be uniform, it won't be tidy, and there will be gaps."

I am wondering what I should do now. I feel strangely out of the loop.

I'm becoming a little anxious about it all. How does my Big Society spirit blast through? I dearly want to be a "doer and go-getter".

Perhaps it might come to me if curled up on the sofa in front of the open fire with Jack Reacher.

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