Published on February 18, 2011

Why I Talk BS

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.

Along with a number of my colleagues, I have blogged a number of times in the last fortnight about different aspects of the Big Society. As a result I have been challenged in person, by email and through comments on the blog to explain why I am broadly positive about the concept. The challenges, from people who I respect and value, have taken different forms, but have forced me to explain and even justify my engagement with the issue.

Part of my problem is that I have sympathy with all of the challenges that have been thrown at me – though I’m not sure I feel in a position to take responsibility for all of them as some clearly would like me to. I suspect I’m energised to write this blog in order to work out what I do feel responsible for.

None of the challenges will come as a surprise to anyone who has paid even a passing interest in the ‘big society debate’. However, given that I’ve now waded into the debate I feel like I need to shape my answer to them.

All of the challenges can be summarised in the form of, ‘why are you engaging with the Big Society, it’s….

  1. Vacuous’
  2. A cover for the cuts’
  3. Only going to benefit a few’

Although they are all interlinked, I’ll respond to each of them separately as I’m not trying to write a fully worked out academic essay here.

The Big Society is vacuous: The Prime Minister gave a clear defence of the Big Society at its ‘relaunch’ on Monday. While Toby Blume, Director of Urban Forum, has pointed out that he said nothing new, what was particularly notable for me was the amount of political capital that Cameron is putting behind the thing. For Cameron, the Big Society has clear shape and substance and it can’t, for that reason alone, be dismissed lightly. At its heart, as I blogged in July last year, is the notion that government needs to get out of the way, stop trying to do everything, so that citizens can come together to identify their own problems and deal with them. The event we ran with Urban Forum and Local Government Leadership earlier this month demonstrates that local authority leaders from across the political spectrum are engaging constructively with this idea – whether it be Labour’s Lambeth, or the Conservative’s Barnet. The people we brought together in the room, at least, are actively and energetically engaging with ways to change how government does things so that citizens have more control.

I think that the problem for Cameron is that he hasn’t explained clearly enough how getting out of the way will unleash citizen energy, what is the mechanism by which this will work? He also hasn’t delineated enough for me the circumstances under which this will work, and under which it won’t – when must government stay well and truly ‘in the way’ because citizens can’t or won’t get involved?

I also think that the Big Society has got totally tangled up with two other agendas that make it much harder to understand. One of these is the cuts, more below, and one the localism bill. At its heart, my reading of the localism bill is that it’s all about building democracy and accountability at the local level. There are some ‘big society’ type ideas in there, but many are aimed at local government in a very non-‘big society’ way. I want to see much more from the government about how pushing power and responsibility down, past local government (and hence past elected councillors) will increase accountability. Just because things are happening closer to the community doesn’t, a priori, mean that they will be more accountable to the community – the whole community anyway, which is surely what we want.

The Big Society is just a cover for the cuts: While I’m in danger of sounding incredibly naïve and that I’ll take every politician at their word, I do believe Cameron when he says that he’d be doing the Big Society even in the boom times. The problem he has is that, having not clearly articulated (and backed up with strong evidence) when government can get out of the way, and when it needs to keep doing things, any cuts that government makes to services that some or all of the community view as essential will be resented. Even if the community is in a position to take the services over, and would run them better, people are far less likely to believe that this is the motive.

A far bigger issue for me is the extent to which the cuts will strip the heart out of the very civil society that’s needed to build the social networks which will strengthen communities and enable them to deal with their own problems either alone, or in a more balanced partnership with government.

A subsidiary issue is how to get people who are campaigning against cuts, either individual cuts or in their totality, to think through much more strategically how they can harness the energy that they are promoting and stoking. How can they ensure that this political energy isn’t lost (whether the fight against the cuts is won or lost)? What are the Pathways that their supporters might take from political action into wider activities to build and strengthen our communities?

The Big Society will only benefit the few: this challenge has actually taken two forms, the second of which is perhaps surprising and is one illustration of why I think there is something in the Big Society worth engaging with. The first form of this challenge is that the poorest communities lack the knowledge, networks, and above all financial resources and power to step in when government steps out. This is a big challenge and while the government is devoting resources, in terms of the transition fund, the training of community organisers and potentially the Big Society Bank, I remain to be persuaded that these will be enough, over a long enough timescale to make the deep systemic changes that are required.

The second challenge has come from someone in the small and medium enterprise (SME) sector who feels cut out by our sector from this debate, and from government contracts – and yet this sector, local businesses, rooted by virtue of where the owners and employees live, in the communities that the Big Society is supposed to reinvigorate. The government, but also our sector, needs to make the debate about (and activities that take place in) the Big Society much more inclusive in all sorts of ways.

To finish

On one level it is uncomfortable taking the constructively critical position that I have. Most of my politically active friends, and many people who I have worked with over a number of years, have taken a position against it. It would be much easier, and personally and morally at least, to put myself in opposition to the government on this one. However, although I am very open to the suggestion that I’m I’ve missed a fundamental point, the times require some intellectual honesty. The Big Society has provided, for me, a space to ask challenging questions about the role of the state, communities and citizens.

Whether or not you agree that Britain is ‘broken’, I sense agreement across the political spectrum that something is wrong with the way we live our lives. Attempts by different people to develop indexes of well-being are one manifestation of this. For me the Big Society is just another way of looking at Labour’s empowerment agenda. For some reason, unlike the empowerment agenda though, it is forcing me to develop a much better understanding of why people engage in social action and what role organisations like mine, as well as government, might play in deepening social capital. I suspect that there are few people who believe that denser social capital would be a bad thing, and if the Big Society helps me work out what role Involve can play in making that happen, then I’m prepared to continue engaging robustly with the concepts, ideas and arguments.

Picture adapted from ‘BK and EP’

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