Are we any further forward?

Posted on November 28, 2010 by


The period since the General Election has seen some frantic debate about the nature of the Big Society. A large number of events have been held, and many conversations have taken place, online as well is in physical spaces. So, some of us have been prompted to ask if we are any further forward in defining what the Big Society is and in understanding the landscape.

It has become an increasingly untenable position that the relationship between cutbacks in government spending and the Big Society either doesn’t exist or can be ignored. And, herein lies a major dilemma. It is the cuts which have been attracting all the publicity.  When the Chancellor of the Exchequer stands up the in House of Commons and announces the Comprehensive Spending Review, and when “student” protesters smash in the windows at Millbank Tower in protest at Government education policies, these are big news events. Up and down the country, local newspapers are filled with stories on proposed local authority cuts, and it’s probably true that hardly anyone in the country does not know at least one person whose livelihood is potentially threatened by the outcomes of the CSR. People are frightened for their jobs and the future of their organisations, and they, quite understandably, want to make some noise about the situation.  Alongside all this publicity, the Big Society debate feels at the same time muted and confused. People can understand what it means to lose a job or close a service down. They find it much more difficult to grasp how they or their neighbours might start a social enterprise  or run their local library.

This is why we have been urging people who have been holding Big Society events to make sure they share their material with the wider world. There is a collection of some such videos here, and some more here. There are reports of various events around online, including this one here. Organisations like CDX and the Urban Forum have organised Big Society tours of the country.  But still the majority of the Big Society debate has taken place behind closed doors. This is frustrating both because it prevents the results of such events being shared, and because it means that each event more or less starts from the beginning in its understanding without other lessons to learn from. We cannot afford to miss opportunities to share practice in this era of austerity.  If people re-invent the wheel and get it wrong, they are not going to get a second chance.

We’ve been quite cautious as yet in pushing out Our Society. We are conscious of the danger of raising expectations of what can be done without resources (unlike some Big Society evangelists). Our Society aims to fill part of what we have come to see as an increasingly large gap between what is happening at Government level and what is happening at grassroots level. It also aims to celebrate people-led local development in all its forms, whether or not those involved choose to accept the label “Big Society” or if they prefer to carry on doing what they’ve always done and call it what they’ve always called it. We have been picking up an increasing mood of frustration, however, among people who want to get on and do Big Society-type activity, about exactly what they can do, and who they can turn to for help.

The first thing to say about this is to re-iterate a previous post and say that, if you’ve got an idea for a Big Society project, don’t wait for permission. There is not going to be an big Government-led Big Society programme whose criteria you are going to need to meet, or which is going to hand down multi-million pound grants to you.  But, what a lot of Big Society advocates have failed to recognise, is that “just get on and do it” is not exactly easy for many people. These include people living in disadvantaged areas where resources other than the public purse have always been tight, and are now getting tighter still. And they also include areas where everyone commutes out of the place and there is never anyone around to drive local activities.  In communities all around the country people are looking around for help. And, as yet, that help has been pretty difficult to find. People have been asking what is the point of the Big Society Vanguard areas when it appears that hardly any information is coming out of them to help others determine what to do (with the notable exception of Eden in Cumbria). Perhaps there is a long term plan for the Vanguards to produce material of use to people in other areas, but it isn’t happening now, and people need to know what they can do now. To think otherwise is to further compound the view that people involved in the Big Society agenda have the luxury of being able to wait. Whether we like it or not, people living in areas that are losing essential public services need to act urgently to fill the gaps. And, if they already had all the skills, knowledge and resources needed to run local services, they’d be doing it already. This is not to deny that there aren’t very many knowledgeable and skillful people out there, but the numbers who have all the components required to run local services are very few.

So, where does Our Society come in? We want to do what nobody else is doing at the moment, which is to bring together people who are doing people-led development in local communities and help them learn from each others’ practice. There are lots of organisations doing bits of this, but even those closest to the agenda are wrapped up in working out their own futures in the changing landscape. And, the other point about all this is that no one in recent times has cracked widespread people-led development in this country without major backing from public resources. Other countries have of course, and we want to learn from them, whether it’s from the United States, where philanthropy has long flourished in the absence of a welfare state, or so-called “developing” countries where states have never had the resources to invest in local activities.  And, it will involve looking back in time to how things used to be done in this country, not with any sense of nostalgia, but in the spirit of enquiry as to how things used to run before the welfare state became what it has become.

It’s all very well engaging in endless debates about the meaning of “Big Society” or launching new initiatives which seek to win people’s hearts and minds to the concept, but people doing real things and suffering real hardships in communities need some help and guidance now. We want to make Our Society a place where Big Society enthusiasts, sceptics and opponents can come together to share their practice as well as their needs and wants. People need to come together in their communities to make any of this happen, and those communities can be local, district-wide, national, or international.

  • Does any of this make sense?
  • Do you want to be part of it?
  • Can anyone resource it?
Posted in: Big Society