A tale of two councils

September 30, 2010 by
Filed under: Social Economy 

Following on from Stephanie Smith’s recent post, here are some thoughts on the meaning of the Big Society and its application by local authorities. I’d be very interested to know what you all think…

The Big Society is a high-profile, if not very well explained or understood, idea that has the potential to benefit communities across the UK. But it risks being devalued as a concept because it is open to interpretation by the councils that will implement it, and because it is seen as ‘Conservative property’. Both these things need to change if it is to survive and flourish in the way it should. Let me explain.

As I understand it, the Big Society idea is first and foremost to empower and engage citizens by giving them influence over local decisions, and to fix problems in society by encouraging people to feel involved in their local community. There has always been an undercurrent of small statism, but the key aim from the public’s point of view is to ‘make life better’.

That’s all very laudable, and it’s certainly a goal worth pursuing. But what matters in the end are not abstract ideas developed by political thinkers but the way in which those ideas are used and implemented on the ground. In this case, that’s going to be heavily influenced by the attitudes and priorities of local authorities.

The Big Society is not primarily, and was not initially, about spending cuts. Despite this, the idea has become linked with cuts in recent months and is being used and invoked in this context in a variety of ways. It’s interesting, and a little worrying.

Right now, the key priority for most councils is not the empowerment of its citizens; it is to cut budgets. Most know they need to reduce spending, and will need to change the way that public services are delivered or procured in the coming years. It’s already clear that there are various ways that councils can do this, driven no doubt by a mix of ideology and local circumstances.

The Big Society is not primarily, and was not initially, about spending cuts. Despite this, the idea has become linked with cuts in recent months and is being used and invoked in this context in a variety of ways. It’s interesting, and a little worrying. Let’s take two examples: Suffolk County Council, and the London Borough of Lambeth.

Much has been written and said in recent days about what Suffolk council is planning, and I don’t want to go over it in detail here. Suffice to say that it intends to shave 30% off its annual budget by becoming a ‘virtual’ or ‘enabling’ council that will work by ‘commissioning services and supporting other organisations, including the voluntary sector, private sector and community groups, to deliver services’, rather than delivering them itself.

Meanwhile, Lambeth council is facing a similar need to cut its budget, but has adopted a rather different approach. It plans to develop a ‘co-operative council’ in which citizens play a more active role in the organisation and delivery of the services they use, and are encouraged to do so by the offer of an ‘active citizens’ dividend’ – which might be a council tax rebate. The council has launched a wiki-style website which allows citizens and officials to discuss and formulate policy ideas together.

These councils obviously face different challenges, and serve different populations. But, fundamentally, which would you say is more ‘Big Society’ than the other?

It seems to me that it is Lambeth’s approach that has the greater potential to fulfil the Big Society’s main objective of empowering and engaging its citizens and thus ‘making life better’ for them, whereas Suffolk has focussed on the small state aspect without so much concern about involving its citizens. Yet it is Suffolk, a Conservative council, that has explicitly aligned itself with the Big Society idea: in the words of Jeremy Pembroke, leader of the council, ‘the coalition requires lesser government and a bigger society, and Suffolk County Council has responded to this.’ Labour-run Lambeth, on the other hand, has explicitly distanced itself from the Big Society: Steve Reed, its leader, believes that its model ‘differs from the Tories’ Big Society because while they want to roll back state, we want to change the role of the state.’

The Coalition has recently unveiled four ‘vanguard’ local authorities which are intended to pilot and champion Big Society ideas. But the Big Society is instead being defined by the actions and endorsements (or lack of them) of councils such as Suffolk and Lambeth, and the government risks losing control of it. The concept needs some substance and neutrality before it’s too late.

Isn’t it odd that a council that defines its plans in opposition to the Big Society seems likely to come closer to achieving Big Society ideals than a council that claims to be acting in its name? But it does make sense if you consider two things: the great and continuing uncertainty about what the Big Society means ‘on the ground’; and the fact that it is a politicised idea.

In the absence of any kind of road map (or even oral directions) for achieving the Big Society’s community goals, it’s not surprising that more obvious aspects and associations such as rolling back the state and cutting services assume centre stage. And as long as the Big Society is ‘owned’ by the Conservatives, their councils are going to trumpet it while opposing councils are going to shy away from it even if they agree with its ideals and plan to achieve them on their own terms.

This is not merely an interesting scenario; it suggests to me that the Big Society as originally conceived is in jeopardy even before it gets going. If councils which endorse it do so primarily to legitimate a move towards a smaller state, and councils which support its community ideals refrain from endorsing it for political reasons, there is a danger that the Big Society will be devalued as a concept, and its association with those community ideals will be weakened. That would be a pity, because the Big Society is a high-profile idea that is here to stay, and it would be nice if it could be used to promote community engagement and empowerment rather than efforts to reduce council headcount.

The Coalition has recently unveiled four ‘vanguard’ local authorities which are intended to pilot and champion Big Society ideas. But the Big Society is instead being defined by the actions and endorsements (or lack of them) of councils such as Suffolk and Lambeth, and the government risks losing control of it. The concept needs some substance and neutrality before it’s too late. Discuss!

Comments

  • @is_jon

    Having been at the recent ROCC conference in southampton where we had Francis Davis – advisor to the CLG on Big Society – speak, my view is that the Suffolk are achieving the more ‘pure’ form big society i.e. that it is society and local people that will be running services and providing for themselves.
    In contrast, the Lambeth model is good as a mid-way step to getting people involved in thinking about how to run things or in what direction they should be going. The retention of the authority to do that though remains within the council.

    As such, we have two councils who are working within the big society framework. One (Suffolk) seems to have thrown itself in at the deep end and, potentially, could fall foul of big business running services rather than the localism that should pervade Big Society thinking. The other (Lambeth) is moving towards the community involvement required by Big Society, but is at this stage too worried to let go of the reins – as regards to running services.

    I agree that this is potentially the death knell of Big Society – the lack of local political will to enact its ideas – but I feel that there is a carrot and stick situation in place. The (relatively small) carrot is that services can continue to be provided even after significant cuts, the (F’ing massive) stick is that cuts will force the local authority to withdraw all but its most chronic services.

    If anything, it falls not to local authorities to pursue the Big Society. It is down to society itself – as an aside, rumour has it that the upcoming localism bill will put in place the legal framework for community groups to run local authority functions, if they can meet certain requirements – If we do not act to get the services we want/need then no one else will provide them.

    The real danger with the Big Society is not necessarily that it will fade away (see carrot and stick section above) but that it will come to bypass the democratic processes that local authorities exemplify, and simply replace them with market driven business decsion making.

    • http://projects.rsablogs.org.uk/author/commvolunteer/ Ben Toombs

      Hi @is_jon. Thanks for your comment. I very much agree that it’s down to society to pursue the BS, not local authorities. But that’s once it’s up and running. Until then, there’s going to be a period of transition in which citizens need to be encouraged and engaged to take on roles that until now have been performed for them. The way that transition is handled will determine how the BS looks in a few years’ time, and it’s down to councils to manage it.

      I’m sure you have a better understanding of what Suffolk is planning than me, but from what I’ve seen it does look more like a massive outsourcing exercise to the private and voluntary sectors than a concerted effort to get ordinary people on board. That in itself doesn’t necessarily means services will suffer, but in two years time, will the average Suffolk resident feel any more empowered and involved? I think that is what the BS should be about, not simply the framework by which services are delivered.

      What throws all this into relief is the need to cut spending. As I said, the BS should really have nothing to do with spending cuts, but cuts are now such a priority that the concept has been hijacked, and as a consequence the link with rolling back the state has been strengthened at the expense of the need to engage people. And that trend is only going to be bolstered if councils which are working to engage people feel reluctant to associate themselves with it for political reasons.

      That’s why I worry that the BS is in jeopardy ¬– it’s not going to go away, but it might not stand for the same positive, pro-social in the future.

  • @is_jon

    Having been at the recent ROCC conference in southampton where we had Francis Davis – advisor to the CLG on Big Society – speak, my view is that the Suffolk are achieving the more ‘pure’ form big society i.e. that it is society and local people that will be running services and providing for themselves.
    In contrast, the Lambeth model is good as a mid-way step to getting people involved in thinking about how to run things or in what direction they should be going. The retention of the authority to do that though remains within the council.

    As such, we have two councils who are working within the big society framework. One (Suffolk) seems to have thrown itself in at the deep end and, potentially, could fall foul of big business running services rather than the localism that should pervade Big Society thinking. The other (Lambeth) is moving towards the community involvement required by Big Society, but is at this stage too worried to let go of the reins – as regards to running services.

    I agree that this is potentially the death knell of Big Society – the lack of local political will to enact its ideas – but I feel that there is a carrot and stick situation in place. The (relatively small) carrot is that services can continue to be provided even after significant cuts, the (F’ing massive) stick is that cuts will force the local authority to withdraw all but its most chronic services.

    If anything, it falls not to local authorities to pursue the Big Society. It is down to society itself – as an aside, rumour has it that the upcoming localism bill will put in place the legal framework for community groups to run local authority functions, if they can meet certain requirements – If we do not act to get the services we want/need then no one else will provide them.

    The real danger with the Big Society is not necessarily that it will fade away (see carrot and stick section above) but that it will come to bypass the democratic processes that local authorities exemplify, and simply replace them with market driven business decsion making.

    • http://projects.rsablogs.org.uk/author/commvolunteer/ Ben Toombs

      Hi @is_jon. Thanks for your comment. I very much agree that it’s down to society to pursue the BS, not local authorities. But that’s once it’s up and running. Until then, there’s going to be a period of transition in which citizens need to be encouraged and engaged to take on roles that until now have been performed for them. The way that transition is handled will determine how the BS looks in a few years’ time, and it’s down to councils to manage it.

      I’m sure you have a better understanding of what Suffolk is planning than me, but from what I’ve seen it does look more like a massive outsourcing exercise to the private and voluntary sectors than a concerted effort to get ordinary people on board. That in itself doesn’t necessarily means services will suffer, but in two years time, will the average Suffolk resident feel any more empowered and involved? I think that is what the BS should be about, not simply the framework by which services are delivered.

      What throws all this into relief is the need to cut spending. As I said, the BS should really have nothing to do with spending cuts, but cuts are now such a priority that the concept has been hijacked, and as a consequence the link with rolling back the state has been strengthened at the expense of the need to engage people. And that trend is only going to be bolstered if councils which are working to engage people feel reluctant to associate themselves with it for political reasons.

      That’s why I worry that the BS is in jeopardy ¬– it’s not going to go away, but it might not stand for the same positive, pro-social in the future.

  • http://twitter.com/juliandobson julian dobson

    Back in July (which is starting to feel like ancient history) I wrote this post about the need to depoliticise the Big Society idea. Subsequent events, not least the reaction to the short-lived Big Society Network ‘town hall tour’, have confirmed that view.

    I appreciate that David Cameron needs a big idea – even if it does happen to be remarkably similar to David Blunkett’s campaign for ‘civil renewal’ (remember that?). But the overwhelming reaction of the community activists and volunteers whose actions will be fundamental to the success of the Big Society is that they’re interested in the ideas, but want nothing to do with the political philosophy.

    Perhaps this is one area where ministers should follow their own rhetoric of letting go as speedily is possible.

  • http://twitter.com/juliandobson julian dobson

    Back in July (which is starting to feel like ancient history) I wrote this post about the need to depoliticise the Big Society idea. Subsequent events, not least the reaction to the short-lived Big Society Network ‘town hall tour’, have confirmed that view.

    I appreciate that David Cameron needs a big idea – even if it does happen to be remarkably similar to David Blunkett’s campaign for ‘civil renewal’ (remember that?). But the overwhelming reaction of the community activists and volunteers whose actions will be fundamental to the success of the Big Society is that they’re interested in the ideas, but want nothing to do with the political philosophy.

    Perhaps this is one area where ministers should follow their own rhetoric of letting go as speedily is possible.

  • http://bigsocietysuffolk.wordpress.com/ Richard Stacy

    I think what this article, and the comments, demonstrate is that the term Big Society can stand for just about anything. It is therefore a hugely useful concept for the Conservative Party to own. They can dangle it in front of those from the centre-left and use it to maintain and promote the idea of Caring Conservatism, but at the same time it can be a front for turning the whole of the business of government into a profit-making opportunity.

    As a concerned resident of Suffolk it is clear that in reality Suffolk County Council (and one therefore suspects the Conservative hierachy as a whole) has a disdain for the idea that citizens should become involved in their interpretation of Big Society – except as passive receipients of newly privatised services. There has been no consultation, precious little explanation and almost no time for debate before their New Strategic Direction, as it is called, is voted into life.

    I therefore disagree with the idea that the term should be de-politicised – rather I think it should be very firmly nailed to the politics which have inspired it – which are not about handing power back to the people, but are absolutely about promoting the neo-liberal ideas of Miltion Friedman and his view that governments should hand over most of their responsibilities to private enterprises operating within a free (and largely unregulated) market. The Opposition needs to get very political about the Big Society very quickly and stive to expose the real agenda that lies behind it. Maybe the Labour Party should re-brand it as ‘The Big Business Society’ – which thus leaves relatively little room for misinterpretation.

    See http://bigsocietysuffolk.wordpress.com for more on the Suffolk experience.

  • Pingback: Government as absent father – DISCUSS! « Big Society Suffolk

  • Pingback: Left hand to outsource right hand « Big Society Suffolk