The #BigSociety Awards

News yesterday that the government has launched the Big Society Awards.

The Awards are designed to

recognise some of the excellent examples of the Big Society in action taking place all around the country.

These awards seem peculiar to me for 5 reasons:

  1. Why do Big Society-type initiatives need central recognition? Surely the recognition of such things happens in local communities, where the initiatives have their benefit?
  2. Awards are usually a means to promote something. As such, the Big Society Awards feel to me to be at least tacit admission that the idea of the Big Society still hasn’t concretely taken hold. To help try and explain in practice what the Big Society is, Cameron is therefore using the Awards to identify exemplars. No bad thing, but (a) he claims it’s all around us, so exemplars should be aplenty, and (b) he’s launched this thing about 71 times already
  3. There’s fairly heavy involvement of the private sector in the Awards (as potential nominees and as eventual panel members handing out the rewards). I haven’t seen such explicit involvement of the private sector in the Big Society narrative before. Has anyone else?
  4. The prize is crap. A certificate from the PM and an invite to a reception? I suspect the only people interested in this are those substantially doing this stuff anyway, who’ll badge their work under whatever language the government of the day is using
  5. There are many unanswered questions: How often will the awards be awarded? What are the criteria? When will the awards stop? Can people apply more than once for different projects? etc. It all feels a bit on-the-hoof, doesn’t it?

Is this just me (a self-confessed cynic) or do others find this a bit weird? Feel free to leave your comments below.


Involunteering and the #bigsociety

Matthew Taylor’s post on the coalition government’s proposals to compel people on out-of-work benefits to do voluntary work – which he names “involunteering” – is excellent. I recommend you read it in full.

He highlights what I consider to be the key point: whilst conditionality in welfare is reasonable, compulsion takes it too far.

Matthew highlights 4 reasons to be wary of it:

  1. It places extra citizenship obligations on people because of their circumstances
  2. It means the state is the judge of what is socially beneficial
  3. There is a sharper management cost for supporting people compelled to volunteer
  4. It creates the requirement to adhere to a government definition of citizenship in order to achieve a basic income.

I’m particularly interested in the third point.

It was noticeable that the CBI, often supportive of government’s policy announcements, was silent on the topic of whether or not they supported the idea.

For why should people compelled to “volunteer” not be compelled to “work” for free – where does the boundary lie, if not simply in the difference in remuneration?

I suspect it’s because the CBI knows that the benefits accruing to host organisations of 4 weeks involunteering are far outweighed by the costs to do so.

As a manager of a disability charity, the question I would ask myself is why would I take on volunteers compelled to get involved (for four weeks) when I have plenty of volunteers willing to give their time without compulsion?

For example, in the last 10 weeks, my organisation has recruited nearly 50 new volunteers, 14 of whom gave their time last Saturday to learn about the work we do and how they can contribute to it. The average length of involvement of volunteer is well over 2 years.

Why would I undermine this successful system we have in place for people who possibly wouldn’t want to be there, and for a much shorter involvement time?

Despite much wariness of the concept of the Big Society, it felt to me like it was starting to take shape and get some traction on the ground.

With compulsory volunteering, the coalition government has just watered once again the seeds of Big Society doubt.

Post-bureaucratic age, the #BigSociety and Ace Ventura

There’s a moment in the first Ace Ventura (Pet Detective) film when Jim Carey’s character realises that the male sports star he’s been searching for is actually the same person as the female police chief he’s been battling with.

With disbelief, he cries to himself:

Ray Finkle is Lois Einhorn. Lois Einhorn is Ray Finkle. Oh my God.

The realisation makes him sick.

I’ve just had a similar experience.

For reading Ian Birrell’s account of his role on David Cameron’s speechwriting team, he asserts

So what is the big society? First of all, I must confess that I am no fan of the slightly fuzzy title… But it is better than its predecessor, the clunky “post-bureaucratic age”.

That is, the Big Society is the post-bureaucratic age. The post-bureaucratic age is the Big Society.

But such things are totally different in conception.

One is a (seeming) positive. The other is a negative – it defines itself by what it isn’t.

One relates to community and how everyone should take a role in it, irrespective of the state. The other starts with the premise of a state and the officials it contains, and moves away from it.

One is expansive in its scope and looks to what the future will be. The other narrows and limits in its scope and ties itself irrevocably to a past.

If – and it’s a big if – the Big Society is the post-bureaucratic age, then Cameron’s in more trouble with the idea than I thought. Because previously, I’d assumed the vision was sound and the details were lacking. This makes me think that the idea may be a bit lacking as well.

Big Society – falling through the gaps?

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.

Quotation of the Week (Big Society edition)

Sometimes politicians talk as if government and society were in a zero sum game: more government necessarily means less society, and less government means more society.

— Geoff Mulgan (writing about the Big Society here)

#irony in today’s #bigsociety launch

Plenty to be said on the formal launch of the Big Society today, which I’ll write when I’ve picked myself up off the floor and stopped laughing.

In the meantime, how’s this for irony: having noted that

the talents and initiative of people had been wasted, claiming that over-centralised government had turned employees into the “weary, disillussioned puppets of central government”

David Cameron went on to say that

Each of the project areas will be given an expert organiser and dedicated civil servants to ensure “people power” initiatives get off the ground and inspire[s] a wider change.

(If you want to see someone seriously grappling with what the Big Society means, I recommend the NCVO series on it here.)

On the Big Society

I only half-joke that the Big Society should be called “BS” for short. Fortunately, Andy Westwood provides a more robust analysis of the Tories’ big idea:

[T]here’s the massive challenge that the Tories haven’t yet acknowledged: social capital and the Big Society will always be stronger in better off places… Much more important is whether building social capital and/or the Big Society can help to turn more deprived or just less well off communities around. Places that have been increasingly dislocated from the prosperity experienced elsewhere. owns and neighbourhoods with poor health, low skills, inadequate housing and transport and high levels of dereliction, deprivation, unemployment and crime. Mining or industrial towns, seaside resorts, inner cities.

And this is where Cameron’s argument falls apart.

Do read the rest.