The Big Society has always been more of an idea than a defined programme with finance and a large ministry of state to defend it. Given the current furore, there is a risk that its supporters, many of whom were lukewarm at best, will quietly leave it to its fate. In some ways, at less than a year old, the Big Society is like a Spartan baby left on a hill side to test its fitness for survival. The jackals and vultures are already circling. To listen to some in the media and blogosphere, it would be easy to imagine that the bones are already being picked clean.
Given the challenges it is facing, it would be easy to forget the baby on the hillside and move on, Spartan like, to more promising, stronger, fitter ideas for dealing with the problems facing our communities.
But I believe that this would be missing the point. I stand by the blog I wrote soon after the election last year noting that I felt liberated by debate that was developing. I felt at the time that the Big Society had created a space for people to re-evaluate their assumptions about the relationship between citizensand the state. Particularly, it helped many to think again about the role of the state in promoting stronger, more resilient communities.
Last week we organised (along with Urban Forum and Local Government Leadership), the Local Society seminar. By inviting senior councillors, council officers, civil society leaders and business representatives we aimed to explore the role of elected representatives and local government in promoting strong, vibrant communities. We’ll be reporting soon on the themes that emerged during the day, but for me one of the strongest was a sense of, if it isn’t a contradiction, constrained liberation. The majority of people in the room were aware of the contradictions in the government’s different agendas, and in some cases incredibly frustrated by what the government is doing. However, despite this were already beginning to commission and deliver services in ways designed to change the relationship between citizen and state. A refrain heard time and again around the room was, ‘just get on with it’.
Whether or not the label survives, the idea behind the BigSociety remains valid, and is in many ways a continuation of the previousgovernment’s empowerment agenda. Politicians from all sides of the politicaldebate recognise that stronger communities require stronger social networks,more engaged citizens and a different way of delivering many of the servicesthat they rely on.
The sound and fury that has built-up around the Big Society is therefore frustrating, because it distracts from the real debate that is needed. A debate is needed about what different actors can and must do to support, incentivise and build the participation of citizens across the whole range of a community’s activities .
In fact, my slightly over-wrought starting metaphor is wrong. The Big Society is not a weak baby subject to the forces of natural selection. Perhaps we need instead to think of thousands of seeds scattered across the country. Many will fail to germinate, others will struggle to survive, while some will thrive, building deep roots, supporting and nurturing communities. It is the nature of human society that some ideas to promote stronger communities will thrive despite us, and despite financial and political context. The key question is really, I believe, what can we do in civil society, and in local government and national government to ensure that a greater proportion of seeds thrive.
(Image by Stella VM)