Published on February 14, 2011

Can the Big Society Hold David Cameron to Account?

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is the Director of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

In a speech today, David Cameron has mounted a stout defence of the Big Society. In an extended question and answer session with ‘social entrepreneurs’. This was well trailed, and has been well covered in the media and rather than redoing that job, I wanted to pick-up on two themes that emerged during the subsequent question and answer session he held with the ‘social entrepreneurs’ who were invited. To do this I thought I would flesh out the question that I didn’t get the chance to ask him because there were just too many people also trying desperately to catch his eye for a brief moment in the limelight.

“Prime Minster, it has been good to hear your thoughts today about the Big Society. The media, as it always does, portrays the debate about it in stark terms. It pits passionate advocates against vehement naysayers. Yet you know, as do all of the people in this room, that the Big Society won’t be built immediately. It isn’t going to arrive through a Big Bang explosion of civic energy unleashed as soon as you remove the bureaucratic hurdles. It will take time.

The final few questions you were able to take before you had to leave have focused on the law of unintended consequences. They highlighted in different ways how what the government is doing might actually increase, rather than decrease, bureaucracy for citizens. For example, the head teacher from east London who was standing behind me described how the process for applying for a licence to become a free school involves a very narrow group of people in government making the decision. She asked you what will happen if there are lots of applications and how much the civil service might have to grow to deal with them.

I wrote last week that my fear is that competing visions for the Big Society are both static visions, rather than dynamic ones that articulate some sort of course that will get us from here to where you say you want us to be. While there is little in what you have said today that I disagree with, what I haven’t heard from you will know if we are on the right course. Because there are so many competing visions of the Big Society, this means that citizens will be unable to tell whether or not you are on course. You have told us what you plan to do, pump money into communities via the Big Society Bank, and help charities and community groups in immediate need via the Transition Fund, for example. However, as was pointed out on Twitter as you were talking, this confuses a to-do list with Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

Indeed, the decisions that you make will determine which parts of the sector are more or less likely to survive the cuts. They will also shape the extent to which small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and charities are able to compete for government contracts against big business. While you quite rightly don’t see the Big Society as a Big Government Programme delivered by Whitehall, you are (while I mix my metaphors) setting the framework, charting the course and writing the score. You have a Big Responsibility within the Big Society.

Which leads me, finally, to the question I would have asked you if I had caught your eye.

I accept, and indeed am excited about, the responsibility you are handing to the sector I have worked in for 20 years. I have said before that I think the debate about the Big Society has liberated me to think anew about the role of the state and of citizens. However, how will you know if the government has been successful in charting a course towards a Bigger Society? In short, what can citizens hold you accountable for in 1 year, 3 years and at the next election?

The danger is Prime Minister, judging by a large proportion of those tweeting while you were speaking, that you will be held to account for things over which you have limited control, rather than those things that you can control and rightly should be held accountable for.”

(Thanks to @lesteph and @BrentonPaulseth for capturing the #bigsociety twitter stream while the PM was talking)

Image used: Ballot Boxes by Keith Bancongco

3 Responses to “Can the Big Society Hold David Cameron to Account?”

  1. Jana Mills
    February 16, 2011 at 10:11 am

    You’ve articulated the question really well. Without any indication of what he is hoping to achieve it’s hard to evaluate it!

    Very impressed with Theory of Change out of the Aspen Institute as a possible model for trying to define and then operationalise some of those outcomes. Would be interested to see a BS supporter take on the task!

  2. February 16, 2011 at 10:14 am

    Jana

    Thanks, in part the articulation of the question came from your tweet, so you must take some credit.

    Can you post a link to the Theory of Change? I’m sure people would be interested.

    best
    Simon

  3. Jana Mills
    February 17, 2011 at 10:17 am

    Simon,

    Yes here is the link to the document that was forwarded to me.

    It seems to have been developed with specific, localised projects and initiatives in mind. But I don’t see why this tool can’t be used to good effect on the big society. Or if it breaks down in the process perhaps, that is revealing in itself.

    The first thing suggested in the model seems to be to identify the desired long-term outcome, and then indicators which operationalise that outcome.

    So what’s the long-term outcome of the BS agenda? Is it to deliver better quality public goods? to deliver more goods for less money? more democratic? To empower civil society? To hold politicians to account? Reduce the size of the state?

    In contrast the tradition of Community Organising seems to have a pretty clear goal… (any organisers out there please correct me) To build the power civil society to challenge state and private power on issues which are identified by the people through listening campaigns.

    all the best, Jana

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