In his post the other day Rich says there’s a danger that Big Society will be allowed to wither on the vine in the places where local politicians and/or officers don’t understand it and/or don’t feel it’s their responsibility to implement it. He mentions this in response to David Wilcox’s point that there is not (nor should there be) a ‘Big Society plan’ or controller (see here), the implication being that the first is a natural consequence or inherent risk of the second. I think that Rich is correct, and I think the main reason he’s right is that the Coalition seems to be – at the moment at least – confusing localism with quitting the field.
Of course you can’t implement an agenda like Big Society in the programmatic style of the past; in fact to talk of ‘implementing’ Big Society is probably a contradiction in terms. But when local agencies (don’t forget it’s not just local authorities that are players here: GPs, police forces, universities and others will remain firmly relevant) still rely on departmentalised central government funding, howevermuch decimated; they need if not actual direction, then at least a framework or set of principles that allows them space to act.
What do I mean by that? Whitehall departments acting in concert or at minimum with a degree of co-ordination. At the moment there’s a real risk that several big reform agenda – GP commissioning, elected police chiefs, local enterprise partnerships – cause disorganised chaos rather than productive variation and confluence; anarchy over plurality. In this context it’s difficult to blame local councils for thinking both everything and nothing ‘is’ Big Society, and sticking their heads in the sand in despair.
Obviously if the Government was genuinely willing to let local areas decide upon the best solutions to suit their needs, and willing to do the necessary to allow local places to achieve this by devolving ‘whole place’ budgets with all but the bare minimum strings attached, Whitehall could quite legitimately wash its hands. I may be guilty of underestimating the radicalism of Cameron and co., but that seems a little fanciful to me. In a more plausible Balkanised scenario, Central Government cannot abrogate its responsibility to say what Big Society is and what it isn’t and still expect this bloody thing to work.
(Credit where it’s due: this post was partly inspired by a meeting with some of the guys from the Institute for Government, who have been doing a lot of good work on the role of the centre in facilitating Big Society.)