Published on June 29, 2010

Big society is small government…

Lots of people say the Big Society is just political rhetoric for the libertarian ideal of small government – I think they’re right!

It’s inevitable that a coalition government of Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats will pursue the libertarian ideal of the small state. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Big Society is the vehicle for the coalition to frame this ideal. But, it seems strange that so many in civil society are philosophically opposed to small government…after all, isn’t the reason many of us choose to work outside it because we think government isn’t capable of doing the things we think matter? Perhaps, the reality is that civil society has become so reliant on government support that in many senses we are simply an extension of it and civil society actors are just less regulated bureaucrats.

The coalition’s vision for the Big Society is certainly one where government plays a reduced role. As I argued a few weeks ago, participation in the Big Society is less about government formally engaging civil society than it is about government creating the conditions to stimulate engagement between civil society actors (in the broadest sense) – it’s for us to work out what problems need to be solved, how we can do this, and where government fits in. The current debate taking place in newspapers, on blogs, conferences and seminars about what the Big Society actually is and what it means only reinforce the point that if we think the Big Society is credible then it’s not government who should decide what it means.

The Big Society’s chief architect Nat Wei has so far (perhaps deliberately) only dropped hints about what the Big Society might be. Wei has essentially provided the shell of a concept (or platform) for civil society to define for itself. In many ways this is a long overdue project of self-realisation for those working outside government – the point being that there is nothing natural or inevitable about civil society’s existence. The existence of civil society is entirely the result of a process of self-creation by the actors themselves i.e. civil society creates itself (a process systems theorists like Niklas Luhmann would call “autopoiesis”). The role of government is simply to provide the environment to encourage this.

Key, then, to the success of the Big Society is its ability to have conversations both within itself and, when appropriate, with government about the issues it thinks are important. Government’s role is simply to provide the conditions for this to work. For the big challenges facing society today like climate change and our ageing population there is a necessary and urgent role for the Big Society. These challenges are so complex that Government cannot even begin to tackle them alone but neither can it set the terms of the conversation about how we collectively solve them. Instead, government must create the environment or platform for this conversation to take on its own life. At Involve we’ve called this idea Distributed Dialogue – where control of the conversation lies firmly within civil society but where government also has a vital role to play.

Find out more about Distributed Dialogue in our new publication Talking for a Change.

Laurie Waller

Image used: Susie B on freedigitalphotos.net

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