Big Society(5): When the Squealing Starts…
In the context of broader public service cuts, yesterday’s Guardian featured a chilling headline regarding Wednesday’s direct action against student tuition fees: This is Just the Beginning. Partly from watching this relatively benign, but portentous protest, it has become clear to me that whatever form the Big Society takes, political conflict will be part of it.
At a recent RSA event on the subject, BBC Home Editor Mark Easton opened by reminding the audience that the Big Society was fundamental to Cameron’s political vision, and not just a passing fad buoyed by a catchy phrase. He alluded to a meeting between Cameron and senior civil servants in the summer:
“Let me be very clear”, said Cameron. ”I do not want you to think your role is to guarantee outcomes of public services. Nor to directly intervene in organisations to directly improve their performance….You should simply create the conditions in which performance will improve….replacing bureaucractic accountability with democratic accountability…If you want to make targets, set new rules, impose restrictions, don’t bother.”
The implication was that Cameron sees ‘the Big Society’ as a place with radically decentralised accountability, and with Whitehall public servants creating the minimal facilitating conditions.
Mark Easton also used the striking expression “When the squealing starts” to refer to protests over public service cuts. Wednesday featured some squealing, but as the Guardian suggested, this may just be the beginning.
In the context of accountability and squealing, I found Anna Coote’s take of the promise and perils of the Big Society informed and sophisticated (based on NEF‘s recently released report.) The two core lines that caught my attention were:
“The phrase may sound like apple pie and motherhood, but is actually a major programme for structural reform. It’s the social policy that makes the economic policy of the spending review politically possible.”
“The Big society story makes the public sending cuts possible, but the cuts make the best ideals of the big society impossible to realise.”
The core argument seems very sound to me, and is built on the idea that what is needed to engage in the Big Society- capactiy, access and time, are unequally distributed. Moreover, as Anna Coote indicated, people opt to volunteer when things are optional, convivial, small scale and life enhancing. But the Big Society sounds conditional, formalised, complicated, and hard graft. And if Volunteering doesn’t take off, the Big Society is in peril.
I found Jonty Olliff-Cooper‘s response somewhat obtuse, given the acuity of the critiques. By his own admission, his appreciation for the Big Society was based on a theory of civil society, rather than the intracacies of practice, but he seemingly failed to recognise that this was precisely Anna Coote’s point- that the best of the theory- the things that can genuinely get people excited, will not, perhaps cannot, be realised in practice.
The Guardian’s Patrick Butler took a similarly sceptical line, fearing the naivety of the vision of ‘Pre-lapsarian self-help nirvana’ and saying that in place of Big Society idealism, he would like to see some Big Society realism.
Like many at the RSA, I instinctively like the idea of the Big Society in abstract, because it encapsualtes so many of the major themes of our work. However, in light of NEF’s report we need to concede that whatever the Big Society is, or could be, it cannot be adaquately understood or appreciated outside of our current economic context.