Part of the point of the Big Society is that no one is really responsible for it – we’re all responsible for it. As David Wilcox usefully notes, part of the implication of this is there’s no big plan governing how it’s rolled out, what its milestones are, how much money is available etc. etc. (for those familiar with Myers-Briggs types, and for those who know themselves to be J-types, I can only guess at how you’re feeling).
In many ways this open approach is useful, not least because it allows for solutions appropriate to the issues, whatever the local circumstances.
But it raises one significant question for me about the cuts agenda that’s happening in parallel.
I don’t happen to think the Big Society is just a shorthand for cuts. At least, I don’t think David Cameron conceives of it in that way (though some of his Cabinet colleagues may).
But a large part of the Big Society is devolving responsibility for stuff to the level of communities. Thus those at central, regional and local government levels have to take a more facilitative, enabling role, rather than directly doing stuff. Not only this, but one of the major criticisms of the Big Society agenda is that Cameron hasn’t done enough to define what it means in practice, which means those who have to take the facilitative, enabling roles aren’t quite sure (yet) what they’re facilitating or enabling.
I think we therefore run the risk of the following: the coalition government sets out its Comprehensive Spending Review and everyone understands what cuts they have to make. Those working in local government are on the receiving end of these cuts and, because they aren’t necessarily fully understanding of or signed up to the Big Society agenda, and are certainly not directly responsible for it, pass on the cuts (possibly in an exagerrated form) to the voluntary and community sector in their local areas.
That is, the narrative and intent of the Big Society means that those who can support things happening in their local area (i.e. local government) (a) may not sufficiently understand the agenda to be able to “invest” in it, and (b) can take refuge that they’re not supposed to have been responsible for it anyway.
I have no doubt there are significant portions of local and central government who see the Big Society as an opportunity to move towards an updated settlement between the state and the citizen. But I equally have no doubt that the Big Society will, in some places where local politicians and officers choose to (not) engage, be allowed to fall between the gaps.