Big Society Revisited


I am still having trouble understanding exactly what Cameron means by the ‘Big Society’. I am really trying. I have read up on it on it’s own website and I looked on Wikipedia (doesn’t that count as substantial research?). I attended a debate  last week at LSE (now available as a podcast and highly recommended) but just when I thought I had a grasp of the basic ideas, my thoughts take me down another path.

Liverpool Town Hall

It is about increasing the ‘civic responsibility and civic responsiveness’ of communities. It is about communities taking more control of issues that affect them. It is about volunteerism and increasing social capital.

Or it is about cuts and replacing central and local government responsibilities with people willing to take part and take action.

It can’t just be about active volunteering communities. That is not a new idea.

Perhaps it is about payment for volunteering in different forms – the Japanese idea mooted by Burstow a few months back about helping older people with some care in order to ‘bank hours’ for ones own care in the future.

But there have been forms of time banks for years where someone might offer a hour of gardening in exchange for an hour of French tuition. That isn’t ‘new’.

Is there going to be more government money to promote the rolling out of the State? No.

Is there going to be any additional time to plough into some of the ideas which form the base of the ‘Big Society’ ideal? No.

I see a potential for social work to transform into more a community based profession. We have the potential as social workers. We know the areas we work in and we have a chance to see areas and people who would benefit from both input and volunteerism. Sometimes I wish I had a more ethereal role in building community capital.

One of the roles of my work is what I would see as ‘building systems of support around people who are isolated’ so I might look at what groups exist – self-help as well as more formal day centres and lunch clubs – I look around online as well as off-line groups. Given a little more flexibility to grow and facilitate (and then withdraw, if necessary) from these groups – I can see some worth in the idea of community building.

There is not much scope or time for these roles at the moment.

Earlier this week,  Lord Nat Wei, who drives the Government’s Big Society agenda – ironically reduced the time he was able to spend on the project because he needed to spend his time, well, earning money and being with his family. On a human level that is completely understandable. I couldn’t give three days of my life up for voluntary work – it was, after all, a voluntary post.

But it is an indication of the difficulties that face the promises that have been made about the ‘Big Society’.

As discussed at the debate I attended, Big Society, is in danger due to demographics. Volunteers tend to be middle class and middle aged. There are ‘pet’ projects and charities. No doubt libraries in Surrey will do very well – but what about hostels in Brixton?

As if to emphasise this point, Liverpool, one of the ‘pilot’ areas for ‘Big Society’ pulled out yesterday with the leader of the council saying that when voluntary organisations are having their funding cut by reductions of grants to the council from central government, he is in no position to roll out the programme.

That leaves the pilot in a difficult and untenable place in my view. Liverpool was the ‘test site’ in a poorer, urban area. The other ‘test sites’ are

Eden in Cumbria – which by no means ‘richer’, is a large rural district. Arguably communities in small rural villages will be naturally more cohesive by the nature of geography.  Now, last week, the MP who represents Eden was present at the debate – Rory Stewart. He was an engaging speaker but he seemed very focused on the rights of residents to have more control over planning applications and the building of affordable housing (a key issue in rural areas). Fine. That’s all well and good but it sounded as if these projects were run by the voices that shouted the loudest. That is my concern about the way the projects and the ‘Big Society’ will pan out.

Sutton in London is another test site for the Big Society. Sutton covers leafy suburban areas and the borders between London and Surrey. Sutton is focuses on citizens ‘having a say’ about transport in the borough. Hm. I wonder how that fits with bus services being cut throughout the country. See, we can’t quite get away from the cuts agenda. Sutton fits perfectly into the ‘middle aged middle class’ band of ‘volunteers’ who might have time to attend meetings about which bus service might go where.

In fact, as the website says

Sutton is one of only four local authorities announced as ‘Big Society Communities’ because it’s regarded as having one of the country’s most vibrant communities with a very active voluntary sector, plus a track record of devolving power to our neighbourhoods.

In other words, lets just do what we were doing anyway and call it ‘Big Society’. That’s one way of guaranteeing success, Cameron.

And the last ‘test site’ after the withdrawal of Liverpool?

The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. Ah, maybe the Queen – an erstwhile resident of the aforementioned borough – wanted a go at ‘Big Society’. Hardly a representative area on income bases and types of community though.

Well, she could certainly pump some additional money in her own local community.

Boys from Eton visiting elderly widows to ‘take tea’. Yes, that might be it.

No, I have it wrong, Big Society isn’t just about volunteering – it is about community groups taking collective action. But it does seem to fall into the ‘middle aged middle class’ demographic again where it is expected that people will have more leisure time to devote to community building.

Reading through the proposals for the Royal Borough, I see some worthy suggestions about residents having greater influence on budgetary decisions and ‘adopting a street, park or library’. See, libraries again. Who is going to adopt the libraries in Toxteth though?

Which brings me to Liverpool. The only ‘test area’ that I personally felt gave the pilot some credibility. The other areas are overwhelmingly mono-cultural. I had to check my figures there regarding Sutton – as a London Borough, but I maintain my position as I found that

the proportion of BME residents living in LB Sutton, at 15.2%, is
significantly lower than for the South West London Sub-Region (27.0%) and for London (33.6 %).

So while the government can point to a pilot project ‘in London’ – Sutton is hardly representative of London or the communities that live therein.

So maybe I have the Big Society all wrong. Maybe it isn’t about increasing volunteerism per se, as much as increasing participation. The problem is that whichever it is both participation and volunteerism need leisure time and in order for people to engage they need to feel engaged and that this idea – these ideas are ‘for them’.

I don’t want to dismiss all the ideas behind community building and grass-roots activism but this is nothing new and unfortunately the ‘Big Society’ label rests too heavily in the lap of this Conservative led government.

Liverpool was the chance for me to be proved wrong. How things worked in Liverpool would have more relevance to me and the communities I live and work in than how things worked in Sutton.

So the withdrawal of Liverpool from the project is very significant. Much more than the tittering about Lord Nat Wei’s ironic inability to have time to devote to the project.

I want live in communities that are actively engaged but then, you see, I think I already do. I don’t want to ‘take over’ my local library. It runs very well with professional library staff. As for planning permission – well, everything around here is built up to the max so there aren’t many decisions to be made.

For me, if I were let loose on the project it would be one about increasing social capital and engagement but working in different ways and using social networking but not only that because that would exclude those who don’t have the same access to computer services.

But for now, I see Big Society as pleasing those who shout the loudest. Everyone else and anyone with any issue that might impede their own motivation or participation – be that a disability, a mental illness, a frailty, a lack of time, an alienation from the ‘mainstream’, a language barrier, a cultural barrier – is at risk of being swept along by the wishes of the loudest rather than the majority.

At least local authorities have some kind of democratic mandate regarding the decisions they make. Groups of communities may have no such responsibility.

Just to finish with a quote from Nat Wei’s blog. He says

I have also recently been working on online and other tools to help establish a community of activists who can champion and help create Big Society where they live. More on this will follow in the coming months

And a word to Nat Wei. Isn’t that by definition, ‘top down’.

Where is this community online?

Someone in the comments mentioned that it is a closed site to invitees.

Surely the ideas could be open to a broader forum of any interested party so that concerns and yes, ideas, can be moved beyond those who work in policy planning or are directors of voluntary organisations. Where do I, or those like me, who have been working in communities for years, go with our ideas?

Maybe the Big Society is an opportunity to fragment. Maybe we find our own spaces in the virtual worlds to play out or ideas. Maybe the concept of the Big Society can be linked to the networked world we live in where trying to impose from above will always be doomed to failure.

Maybe, just maybe, we are seeing the Big Society in Egypt.

It uses twitter to network and build alliances and share ideas and it won’t be owned by the government.

Maybe it is grass roots activism which needs to take on the models of a new media but remain inclusive to those who lack access across the digital divide.

The sad thing is that I see a massive role for social work in building a more engaged society, just as the government seem set on destroying it and removing the bases and protections on which our civilised society has stood.

15 thoughts on “Big Society Revisited

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  3. Personally I feel the idea of the Big Society is over. In my area the local authourity is planning to cut funding to community groups and is also cutting back on some of its contracts with voluntary organisations.

    At the same time the Big Society agenda is expecting more from communities it is simultaneously removing support and funding meaning that existing community organisations and support structures find their continued existance in doubt.

    Even if communities and groups do organise on what level will they be able to provide services? If it is a case of the state rolling (as is the case with Day Care provision) then communities and voluntary groups face being overwhelmed by demand. Without proper funding to expand (and even if they could do it is questionable whether expansion is always the right thing to do) the only alternative in a non-market system (in a market system demand can be controlled by price) is for rationing by using eligibility criteria.

    So ultimately what you get is a move from a universal criteria system (FACS) to a system where Service Users may have to negotiate multiple and varying forms of criteria for each service they wish to use, a system which I beleive was common before the advent of the universal welfare state.

    Another big issue is standards. What was acceptable 30 years ago is not acceptable today. We expect well-trained, CRB checked staff who need to work in clean and safe conditions. In short, even in the voluntary sector we expect service delivery by a professional, not an amateur. The barriers to entry are much higher than in the past so the ability of a grass-roots organisation to set up as a service provider is much more limited.

    At my least cynical the Big Society is about the Communitarian idea of a balance between rights & responsibilities, about communities taking control and about the freedom to innovate.

    Strangely I beleive this can be achieved, but in an environment which is nurturing. The current one is more hostile than I can ever remember.

    I beleive that what we’re more likely to see is a contraction of community and voluntary organisations and an increase, at least in Social Care, of large for-profit firms who can benefit from economies of scale, experience and access to expertise.

  4. A characteristically thoughtful post. Whatever terms they may use in promoting the Big Society (which has always made me shudder due to the fit with the language and ethos of 1984) this is an unashamedly top down approach. I’m reminded here of when the Labour government of the late 70s put money into promoting Good Neighbour schemes (if you look in the stationery cupboard at your team office you’ll probably find a few unopened boxes of leaflets explaining what was meant by being a good neighbour, how to set up a scheme for your neighbourhood – and what forms you needed to fill in to get registered!). They didn’t understand then that some of the attraction of a local group is the way in which it exists outside of the formal structures – and thus doesn’t appear in directories, can’t become ‘a resource’, to which clients are referred, and won’t simply become a cheap (and cheerful?) version of another service available from either the public or private sectors.
    BigSoc, sorry can’t resist lampooning it as part of Orwell’s vision of the future, is unlikely to flourish so long as there is no consensus on what it means, and by inference what it doesn’t mean thus removing some of the layers of mistrust that surround it. The big voluntary organisations whose executives aspire to run even bigger businesses and to exercise even greater power and control, can bid for contracts like any other outfit without attempting to ascribe it to some higher ideal like growing the big society, or creating caring communities. And politicians and officials will have to carry out their reviews, implement their reductions and take the consequences without wrapping it all up in some ‘motherhood and apple pie’ nonsense about wanting to empower communities. People will go on volunteering for things they value and enjoy being associated with – many of them will have no truck with becoming fall guys for under-resourced excuses for a stripped down society. Phew, now I feel better….!

  5. I’ve always understood ‘big society’ as something that happens outside of government and is grass roots. Strangely enough, one of the things that it generally doesn’t require to work is money, unless it’s hiring a hall or something. Formal funding can have the opposite effect on it. I was once a member of an organisation that was a signposting agency for carers, run by carers. It was great for a couple of years and it was gaining in influence. The council gave it an office, lots of funding and got a couple of their people to join who slowly but surely steered it into the mire of endless conferences held in posh hotels with black forest gateau. It still exists but is a shell of itself. I think the future lies with Twitter myself and social networking, not top down imposed structures.

  6. the “Big Society” already exsists but these cuts will destroy it. Another worry is the the personalisation agenda will have a crippling affect people who were getting together in a group, may well end up doing individual activity’s becoming more isolated as it appears that you can have any choice as long as it’s not keeping things as they are.

  7. I followed Phillip Blonde, one of Cameron’s advisers about the big society, the chap who wrote ‘Red Tory’ around a few strands at the Hay Festival. I was a little unimpressed that for someone who was supposed to be espousing politically non-sectarian community engagement about how tetchy and chippy he was when interacting with other speakers. I nerved myself to ask a question which was along the lines of ‘All this seems tremendously familiar from the communitarian agenda from Blair’s Third Way. That didn’t really work, what will make this different?’ His answer didn’t really satisfy: apparently Third Way communitarianism bombed because of John Prescott. I didn’t get the impression that Phillip Blonde had ever spent a huge amount of time visiting pensioners or mopping up sick at the street drop-in centre.

    I too am concerned about the projects which will attract volunteers and about how useful and durable the support will be. I used to do some fairly hard core volunteering in direct access night shelters in my youth. One of the homelessness organisations I worked in set up a soup run at the shelter used by the city’s street drinkers. (Whether this was a good idea or just finally absolved the regulars of any responsibility to make their own arrangements about food-based nutrition is another issue). It was interesting and painful to see how the different sorts of volunteers interacted. The ‘soup dragons’ would arrive at the move-on hostel, commandeer the kitchen, boss the live-in volunteers about, getting them to do a lot of the work brewing up foul soups fortified with surplus EU beef and then disappear to do the run in a whiff of self-righteousness. The selection of Vicar’s wives and local law college students padding CVs were clearly nervous around the regulars and doled out soup without comment or enagement before dumping the washing-up back onto the hostel staff and talking boldly about their rapport with ‘the lads’. Doubtless they went back to their lives to be remarked upon as heroes and saviours because they’d been in the same building as Wilf, Gally and Mad Kelly and the others for 20 minutes. The issue for me was that they clearly thought their contribution was crucial whereas in fact it was minimal, the exercise required a lot of faciliation and maintainance and may in fact have compounded stereotypes about homeless people rather than fostering genuine compassion, any appreciation of common humanity or generating solutions.

    I’m rather afraid that Phillip Blonde is being rather naive and may have fallen among thieves as the proper Blue Tories steal his clothes for cover for their ambition to dump expensive and awkward social care and welfare commitments onto ill-prepared voluntary sector organisations before they scamper off joyfully to spend the savings on aircraft carriers or some such. The Tory MPs look a bit bemused sitting behind Cameron and Clegg when they make communitarian noises but hoot and scream with delight when ‘efficiency savings’ (cuts to the rest of us) are discussed.

    One strand of the Third Way and possibly also the Big Society was about empowering the community to define itself. This sounds nice, but what if you’re in a group the community doesn’t like very much? Some people don’t like sharing public space with the visibly impaired. A lot of public discourse about the mentally ill is about what a nuisance and menace they are and as we know, old people all belong in homes. If some communities get full control of planning this could mean approving their own extensions, declining social housing development and goodbye to the chances of any Traveller landowners regularising their housing position through planning consent. It’s worth remembering that the mixed legacy of ASBOs are just about the only evidence that Tony Blair ever believed he was a communitarian.

  8. Thank you all for your very thoughtful comments. I think it just proves that ‘big society’ is defined very poorly and really isn’t THAT new.

    I’m sure it’s something that I’ll come back to but at the moment it is also an agenda that is owned by the government which is completely counter-intuitive if it is supposed to be grass-roots led.

    • The internet is much more a consumer product these days – just look at the phones the teenagers are using. The days when internet access was confined to schools, workplaces and libraries are long gone.

      • Mike: That’s not actually true , but because more and more people who ARE internet connected think that it is, there’s a risk of it dropping off the agenda. Ask anyone who works in a library how popular the free internet terminals are and what the demographic is that uses them.

        • Yes, I would absolutely back that up. There are massive chunks of the population who are not as ‘connected’ as we probably think there are. It is very very rare that I visit a house that has an internet connection. The schools that my foster kids attended had their computer labs oversubscribed and our local library (in a poor area) is never without full internet terminals and highly used ‘homework clubs’. It’s even more important to have access now that kids needs to submit some of the schoolwork online.

  9. The Big Society hasn’t failed. It’s just slow and difficult to get going.

    Liverpool was a poor choice for a pilot because the Labour Council is determined to sabotage anything from a Conservative government regardless of the interests of local people. There is, after all, a very long tradition of Liverpool people suffering for the interests of unpleasant factions of the Labour Party. The Council is also riddled with idle jobsworths who’s vocabulary seems to be limited to the word ‘no’. Many resources which could be used by community groups – eg rooms in council owned buildings are controlled by the Council, whose employees will always find a way to make something impossible.

    Despite Nat Wei’s comments, Big Society projects do depend heavily on volunteerism, and people do have limited time and energy. Something like reusing a vacant building as a social centre, and providing space for community, activist and education groups could easily take 12 months work before you even sign the lease. But my understanding was that we had the length of the current parliament to get up and running.

    Volunteering was also severely discouraged by the previous government, who had a very ‘nanny knows best’ approach, and the fact that the attitude should have changed hasn’t fully filtered down yet. We do need to see some success stories from the pilot areas for people to develop the confidence to get going with ideas of their own.

    • Hello Mike (should that be @Mike?)

      Re: my previous post. I was under the impression previous government also espoused the cause of volunteering and the voluntary sector. They were really keen on social entrepreneurs as I recall. I was quite enthused at the time and still have pamphlets from various think tanks about it. I remember writing a gushing essay about community based organisations, civil society and social capital. * sigh *

      This isn’t (supposed to be) a politically sectarian point but I’m just curious how Mike thought the last lot discouraged the sector as a matter of policy, as opposed to inadvertently making things more complex (through things like the National Vetting and Barring Scheme).

      I’d agree the the sentiments of FM’s blog post: that central governments trying to orchestrate grass roots activism from the top is a bit of a contradiction in terms. I’d also underline the point that I was making about the Tories (and this is a politically sectarian point): they’re clearly up to something and this may be nothing good.

      Though I defer to Mike’s experience of petty obstruction in Liverpool (I used to work there: could be a really stodgy lack of imagination rather than pure malice), I think local government can be rather better at fostering this sort of thing. A lot of councillors will have cut their teeth in local activism in such organisations and LG officers can work well alongside voluntary bodies.

      Even after the cuts, I think local government will still be largely bankrolling the personal social services bits of the voluntary sector through contracts and service level agreements. It’s a nice idea that voluntary organisations can do a lot and can (sometimes) come up with really new configurations of services but my experience of the sector (I used to work in homelessness organisations before joining the Feds.) is that they do need someone to keep an eye on them when handling significant amounts of money or exercising significant responsibilities. Since national bdoes weren’t great at doing this and anyway, the Audit Commission has been axed and the Charity Commission is too stretched even to look at the books regularly, this monitoring is probably best based with the local (tried to underline that, but couldn’t) authorities. I don’t dispute that there’d need to be change of attitude and culture in some service areas before local government really fostered the voluntary sector.

      I suppose what I’m basically saying is that the distance between the Town Hall and the Community Centre is less than the distance between Whitehall and the Community Centre.

      (By the way, just checked on Wikepedia, Liverpool CC was Lib Dem controlled from ’98 – ’08). Oh, dear, this sounds much more partisan than I intended.

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