In a week dominated by international news, Radar plumps for a Big Society special.
The Big Society debate, which at the moment plays out predominantly on twitter and a relatively small number of influential blogs, has achieved a remarkable level of consistency over the past few months. Opinion, both positive and negative, seems to bubble away happily almost regardless of what is happening in the rest of the news. Every week there a couple of announcements, this week the plan to give out reward points in exchange for volunteering in Windsor and Maidenhead and the indication from the children’s minister that the Big Society Bank will focus on youth projects, followed by a speech from a prominent civil society figure which generally adds little to the debate, this week Sir Stuart Etherington’s ‘Big Society must be more than hot air’ speech at CASS Business School. These apparently weekly features have been supplemented this week by contributions from a couple of Big Society big hitters.
One of the charges levelled at Big Society regularly when it first lumbered slightly awkwardly into the public consciousness during this year’s election campaign, was that it was merely a branding exercise. In particular, these denunciations centred on claims that Big Society was merely a smoke screen to, at least partially, obscure the level of cuts to public spending. If that was the original intention of Big Society then it can only be judged as an abject failure, with the concept featuring only sporadically in coverage of the Comprehensive Spending Review and the ensuing cuts. Distracting voters to some extent from the severity of spending cuts may well have featured in the thinking behind Big Society, but I’ve always thought that the Conservative party had no real need to ‘cover’ their public sector cuts. That buck can be, and in fact constantly has been, sent the way of the previous government.
Having said that, Big Society can still very much be seen as a branding exercise. By that I don’t necessarily mean that it has no substance and potential, it has both of those things in abundance, rather that it has effectively reframed the debate about a number of issues, including volunteerism, community engagement and localism. This is an achievement in itself, and undoubtedly serves a purpose. Over the last few months the words Big Society have come to be used by all and sundry as a kind of badge of relevance, a guarantee that people will have at least a passing interest in what you’re talking about. This interest may well have its roots in an increasing desperation to get a handle on a what looks like becoming a terminally nebulous concept, but it has also stimulated a sense of urgency, and a wealth of conversation, around what is by no means a new idea.
The problem with this prominence is that it brings with it an impatience to see the rhetoric rapidly translated into tangible change or action. Of course it’s unsurprising that this hasn’t happened given that real, lasting change rarely happens in a few months. This point was made well this week by Julian Dobson, formerly editor of New Start magazine, who spoke of the circus that surrounded Big Society, and also argued that central London will not be the stage on which Big Society will play out most effectively.
This week also saw the publication of a major report from the New Economics Foundation (NEF), which is an expansion of an earlier publication. The report, entitiled Cutting It – The Big Society and the New Austerity, both outlines the good ideas at the centre of the concept and the major challenges facing it. It’s a very good overview if you’re new to the themes that swirl around the concept.
One of the most reliable sources of information on Big Society is David Wilcox AKA the Social Reporter. When I wrote my assignment for the charityworks programme on Big Society, which I’ll post here soon, my research started with his incredibly informative twitter stream, bookmarks, and blog. He’s been a big supporter of the concept, and a belief in its value usually underpins his writing on the subject. So this post on his website from last week, in which he comes across as frustrated and dejected, reads as a undeniably downbeat analysis of the current state of the Big Society debate. Like Julian Dobson’s post, Wilcox seems to increasingly be seeing this a Westminster-dictated agenda which needs to be claimed by people outside the political bubble if it is ever going to be successful. I was particularly struck by the line “And why should we volunteer for David Cameron if we aren’t Conservatives? Big Society is ideological. We may have to live with that, but not support it for free.” I would argue that when advocates like Wilcox start saying things like that then the Big Society, at least under that name, is probably living on borrowed time.