This Big Society game is simply out of touch

I was going to start this article with a consideration of whether there is anything worth salvaging from the notion of the Big Society and express support for the principle of participation. Unfortunately Mr Cameron has now let the cat out of the bag following the publication of his article in the Daily Telegraph.

Leaving aside my natural resentment at the idea that the private sector will automatically do better, the article failed to mention charities once and the prevailing message seemed to be that the Big Society was a tool in the drive to cut costs.

There was an even more insidious message in the emphasis on professionals and freeing them from ‘bureaucratic’ controls. Insidious, not because of the need to get rid of unnecessary bureaucracy but because of a potential throwback to a world when priorities for communities were set without consultation or scrutiny.

It is the world of the headteacher, doctor or bank manager whose word was deferred to and it is a vision of a society that is essentially passive.

My own commitment towards community empowerment is clear. Salford has implemented and achieved a great deal of success with the involvement of residents and partners at community committees who have responsibility for devolved budgets since before the DCLG was the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. We have working neighbourhood teams, in which community organisations like Ordsall Community Cafe and The Seedley and Langworthy Trust deliver services alongside the public sector. In my own ward, a voluntary organisation known as the Broughton Trust is funded to run one of these multi-agency teams. What works about this is the relationship and not the choice between public services, community and voluntary organisations – a point ignored by the Big Society hype.

It is not about the state withdrawing but about the state working harder. It is about openness and working in a different way.

All this is covered in the publication Participation and Democracy in the 21st Century City (Palgrave – MacMillan) which sets out the innovative nature of what has gone on in local government that needs to be built on rather than thrown aside in favour of a new game in town.

That new game, the Big Society, has so far failed to grasp the attention of the ordinary voter.  It is a concept that is seen as largely theoretical and has little or no relationship with the issues affecting them. A massive issue right now is the risk to individuals and families of the reform of the welfare benefits system, in all its guises attacking incapacity benefit, lone parents, the education maintenance allowance, housing benefit and rent reforms. This is a pivotal moment, and we must work with partners and communities to be ‘Big’ on understanding who is most at risk; ‘Big’ on ensuring they can’t miss the support that is available to them; ‘Big’ on ensuring support is joined up and well targeted and ‘Big’ on delivery that places the customer at the centre of what we do; using public, community and voluntary sectors to ensure people have as positive an experience as possible.

I am clear that the goal of this work is ultimately to support people to economic independence and this has huge gains for central government. We are talking in some cases about families who because of complex needs cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to support, but this also has immense significance for local government.

A challenge indeed – and a time for the Big City, not the shrinking violet.


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