Published on March 7, 2011

The Big Society brain surgeons

By Simon Burall

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

hands up

Last week Rory Stewart, Member of Parliament for Penrith and The Border was quoted on the Conservative Home blog as saying,

The big society is not a replacement for everything; it is not a silver bullet or a panacea… we need a state where there are issues of expertise. For example, brain surgery is best left to the state, not a community.

I’ll wait for everyone to take a deep sigh of relief before highlighting a couple of points that this raises for me.

That Rory Stewart feels it necessary to say this emphasises why I think the government has made a mistake by leaving the concept of the Big Society so vague; it has made its job of explaining the Big Society more difficult and risks increasing ridicule. By not delineating boundaries of the concept more clearly, the government leaves itself open to the cheap shots that the quote above invites.

When focusing their questions about, or ridicule of, the Big Society, most people focus on service provision. However, I think there is a second boundary that the government would do well to clarify; the democratic boundary. I’m going to briefly explore both.

The Big Society and Services

As Rory Stewart highlights, there are clearly areas of public service where technical expertise is needed and the Big Society has no role. At the other end of the scale, David Cameron has explicitly stated that there are public services which the Big Society can aspire to take over:

“For example, if neighbours want to take over the running of a post office, park or playground, we will help them.”

It is a big continuum between running a park and opening up someone’s skull to deal with a complex neurological condition. This continuum includes keeping under-occupied youths of the streets and out of trouble, delivering meals to vulnerable adults, via acting as armchair auditors holding local and national government to account, right through to running schools and local GP surgeries and possibly beyond.

The blog of the Government’s Big Society advisor, Nat Wei, is full of inspirational examples demonstrating that citizens can come together to solve relatively complex problems and identify innovative ways of working together. Citizen action, without state aid, is possible and desirable; it is what delivered us hospitals and schools for the poorest in society, and our first public libraries after all.

However, the brain surgery example suggests that there is a set of public services that only government can deliver, and that there is a separate set that the Big Society can take over. This fundamentally misunderstands the fact that different communities have very different capacities, knowledge and resources. It is one of the main reasons that there is so much suspicion about the Big Society; it is richer communities which will take advantage, while the poorest will see their services cut without being supported to build the capacity to take them over.

It seems to me that the government therefore needs to do two things in relation to delineating the boundaries of the Big Society. The first is to be much clearer about those public services it believes can only be delivered by government no matter what the circumstances. The second is to be much clearer about how it is going to take account of the capacities of different communities in order to judge whether or not support is required.

Democracy and the Big Society

One of the reasons that the government gives for its focus on the Big Society is that it will make public services more accountable. Their underlying assumption is that taking services out of the hands of national and local government will bring them closer to citizens. Having spent seven years developing ways of thinking about accountability, it isn’t at all self-evident to me that handing services over to communities automatically makes them more accountable; in some cases it will, and in others it won’t. Whether or not accountability is enhanced will be the result of the interaction of institutions, structures, and the representativeness of the group taking over the service, for example.

Accountability is only part of the picture though. Politics and the institutions of government exist to balance, within a clear democratic framework, the competing demands of different groups within society. There is nothing within the Big Society rubric that helps understand how communities might negotiate between competing demands. When does government step in over the boundary of the Big Society to sort out disagreements, and when does it not?

I’m not suggesting that we should be looking to government for permission to go where our energies take us. However, the government must take responsibility for ensuring that the minority don’t lose out to the majority, and that the powerful don’t gain at the expense of the weak.

For me the question of what the Big Society means and doesn’t mean gets more important as we head into the government’s second year. I recently asked what we could hold the Prime Minister accountable for as the Big Society develops. This question still stands; it would be a travesty if citizens were blamed not taking up the opportunities offered by the Big Society because government leaves the concept so vague that it can’t be held to account itself.

By Simon Burall

Leave a Reply