Cards on the table time: insofar as it exists as a negative agenda – a rejection of the overweening state, and in particular calling time on the idea that the answer to everything is to give someone a meaningless job with a title in the form [Name of Programme] + [Coordinator] – I’m quite a fan of the Big Society idea. Having spent a great deal of my professional life working alongside civil servants, I can enthusiastically endorse the principle that the best ideas do not come from Whitehall.
The problem comes when we have to grapple with what it could mean as a positive programme for change: we know what Big Society isn’t (more state activity or funding), but what on earth is it?
Many commentators and experts have done a great job of exposing the risks, dangers and inconsistencies of the Big Society reform agenda – and on this blog Rich has pointed to the issues for the social care world, and also to the government’s ironic and unknowing unwillingness to depart from the default delivery model – but for me the most pressing issue is whether a Big Society can cope with the fact that there is no such thing as ‘a’ Society, but many societies, some which are well-off and some which very certainly are not.
As usually turns out to be the case, people with bigger brains than me have got to this point much earlier, and Matthew Taylor is amongst them. I recently came across his blog post from a month ago which rather neatly pinpoints the need for this kind of variegated approach:
To underline his commitment to ‘progressive ends’ and to help counter scepticism, the Prime Minister could have had a stronger redistributive element. In simple terms the message could be that advantaged communities have a great deal of resource in terms of money, skills, networks (to take one example middle class pensioners are healthier and live well longer than their poor counterparts). So the task involved in mobilizing those communities is primarily to create the opportunities for that capacity to be expressed.
But in disadvantaged communities the Big Society task is more difficult and more resource intensive. Here the need is to not just to tap into the ‘hidden wealth’ of these communities (and hidden wealth there is as the RSA Connected Communities project is finding) but also to provide the infrastructure of resources and skills needed to make the Big Society aspiration realistic and rewarding to those communities.
In essence the Big Society message should be ‘middle class people will be expected to do more, working class communities will be given the support to do more’.
Now, personally, I’d love it if we didn’t have to bother to find more ‘resource’ at the level of our communities, because I wish we didn’t live in a world where the bankers and their willingly-enslaved political lackeys had raped and pillaged. But them’s the breaks. And given we do need to make ends meet, I’d suggest that finding out what more we can expect of the middle classes, and what we need to do to support disadvantaged communities to do more is a very sensible way forward. Interested to hear what others think.