Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Big society is here to stay and it's time to get used to it: Guardian Public 09.03.11

Photo: Murdo Macleod
Despite opposition from both the left and right on the political spectrum, and a wealth of criticism from civil society leaders, there are reasons why the "big society" is here to stay.

The first is that there is too much political capital invested in the idea from the prime minister and his closest advisors. The second reason is that even if we don't like the terminology, its approach or our potential bedfellows, the rest of us have to agree with the central tenet of the agenda: that individuals and communities must be more engaged.

The past few weeks have been a riot for civil society, but damaging for the big society brand. Battlelines have been drawn and sides have been chosen. Once the redoubtable Dame Elisabeth Hoodless launched the first salvo and Sir Stephen Bubb from the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations waded in, the exchanges quickly gained momentum.

How could a philosophy that purported to support community development stand a chance in the teeth of the worst cuts that anyone, even Hoodless with 35 years at CSV, have ever seen?

The question that refuses to go away is whether this new way of thinking about the relationship between state and community is in reality a fig leaf for cuts.

I don't believe it is, but I do think a great deal more could and should have been done to anticipate and mitigate the inevitable onslaught. Perhaps today's announcement of an increase in No 10 advisors will do just that and give us a pre-emptive road testing of departmental proposals, hopefully with an eye to delivering big society values.

That sort of leadership would steer a course around some of the contradictions that have emerged in the last few months from across government. Contradictions, for instance, such as whether the public sector is an "enemy of enterprise", as the prime minister said earlier this week, or whether, as Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude believes, it is chock full of potential social entrepreneurs willing and able to spin out and deliver public services independent of government.

Similarly, we might ask how public services will be opened up – as the Cabinet Office suggests, and I would applaud – when contracts around welfare to work from the Department for Work and Pensions for the Single Work Programme are only open to huge providers with reserves of tens of millions of pounds.

There is a groundswell of support for the mutualisation agenda. Central government needs strategies like the Employee Ownership Association's new guide on How to Become an Employee Owned Mutual and our own Transitions programme for public sector staff to meet its aspiration that by 2016 over 1 million public sector workers would be working within employee owned mutuals.

This ambition means that we are starting to see what government means by big society. Organisations such as Your Healthcare in Kingston is a fantastic example of a new social enterprise which provides 190,000 people, registered with Kingston GPs, with community-based healthcare, including district nursing, rehabilitation and learning disability services.

In order to get back on track and reach its destination successfully, big society must be a central tenet of all government policy with an established road test. Maybe then the "L" plates can come off and the big society can begin to ignore its back seat drivers.

Article published online in today's Guardian Public

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