Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Big Society

Odd, isn't it, that David Cameron's "The Big Society" means a small state and Lyndon Johnson's "The Great Society" meant a big one? The phrases are so vague, of course, they could mean almost anything, but to be fair to both politicians, if you try to find more specific alternatives they tend to be a mouthful. For Cameron, too, the phrase implied a rejection of his Conservative predecessor Margaret Thatcher's "There is no such thing as society" - though to be fair to her, which I find difficult, part of what she was saying was, I suppose, that making "society" responsible for things was often a cheap way of avoiding personal responsibility.

Unlike many people broadly on the left, I think Cameron really meant what he said about the Big Society, though he hadn't fully thought it through. I think he really wants (or at least, wanted) an explosion of individual and community action in place of passive acceptance of the way things are, the dictates of the state and even of big business. I'd totally go along with that. However, such a growth of community action does not necessarily mean a contraction of the state. Community groups may take over some state functions, but they may also campaign for the state to take on new responsibilities where the job is too big for community action. That has been the Chicago experience with community organisers.

The genuine Big Society idea, though, was dangerously mixed with two different agendas - the wish to transfer as many as possible public services into the hands of the voluntary or private sectors and the need to cut public expenditure to reduce the deficit. Community action and charities providing publicly-funded services are totally different things. The kind of charities that win sizeable public contracts rarely use many volunteers to deliver the services, and national charities are likely to be LESS close to local communities than the local council is. Moreover, local authorities, police and NHS trusts all make quite extensive use of volunteers, and may shed volunteers if they hand over services. As for the cuts agenda, there ARE cases of voluntary organisations and community groups achieving desirable aims massively cheaper than traditional public services, but this is a matter not of paring a few costs when a service is outsourced, but of rethinking radically how to achieve the desired outcomes. A programme in that direction called "Total Place" was pushed in the last days of the old government and did turn up some spectacular examples of how things could be done much cheaper and differently, but setting up such things takes time. The push for cuts tomorrow has sidelined the Total Place concept in favour of old-fashioned programmes of cutting what we can (often grants to voluntary organisations or long-term work that would bring in big benefits but not tomorrow). The savings achieved by outsourcing services more or less as they stand will be modest and the successful bidders will rarely be close-to-the-ground local voluntary groups, who in fact are feeling the pinch.

If "civil society" and local activism did enlarge, they would grow and gain power not only at the expense of tha state, but also at the expense of the private for-profit sector, as we see with local campaigns against, for example, Tescos.

It's all a huge pity because the basic idea was right and was not, I'm convinced, a cynical ploy; but in the hands of central-action-oriented civil servants, it soon became largely code for outsourcing.

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