Monday, 14 February 2011

How to make Big Society more than just BS

David Cameron is having another relaunch of his Big Society today. Always a bad sign in government, this one is boosted by his slightly implausible declaration that this half-formed policy is his great mission in life. Desperation suggests itself, not least as the policy has suffered its share of knocks in recent weeks.

The thinking behind the Big Society is perfectly reasonable. At least it would be if it didn't rely on stale caricatures of Labour's approach. When I worked with David Blunkett, he regularly spoke of citizenship and volunteering, which translated into curriculum changes and the promotion of programmes like Millennium Volunteers (since renamed) which is not much different from Cameron's citizens' service. Blunkett also belonged to a Labour tradition that owed much to the pre-war mutualism of the co-operative and trade union movements, which promoted credit unions and penny libraries in Victorian England. Tony Blair regularly promoted 'Big Society' themes such as mutualism in the delivery of public services through trust schools, for example. Gordon Brown was obsessive about encouraging volunteering.

Their enthusiasm produced valuable measures, but no-one would pretend they amounted to a great breakthrough. And there is even less reason to believe that Cameron will be any more successful however much he puts the policy up in lights.

For a start, there is already a certain amount of 'Big Society' activity going on - Cameron highlighted Balsall Heath in his Observer article yesterday, just as Blunkett did a decade ago - but its existence is not proof that it can rapidly be extended, especially if it is simply seen as a substitute for local authority cuts that ministers crassly pretend either are not happening or are nothing to do with them. As Will Straw points out in a great piece on Left Foot Forward today, citing comparisons between poor US states and Sweden, cutting public spending actually tends to reduce volunteering. Changing the culture requires more than words.

Then there is the lack of enthusiasm not just about those who are not already volunteers, or among those who volunteer, as I do as a school and college governor, to become more actively engaged. This is not just because they don't understand what the Big Society is all about, though they don't, but because their lives are filled with work and family commitments. Most people don't want to run their local school or park unless they think the system is failing them. And most people are happy with their local services. One survey today suggests a similar lack of enthusiasm among the coalition's MPs.

And there is also the matter of education. A cultural change will require a shift in what young people learn. Citizenship is patchy in schools, but instead of being revitalised it could be axed in Michael Gove's curriculum review. The International Baccaureate requires a degree of volunteering from young people, but Gove's English Bac gives credit for nothing beyond the narrowly academic. If the Big Society is to resonate, it must start with young people, many of whom already raise money for charity and would happily volunteer in their communities with the right encouragement. There needs to be space for them to try establishing social enterprises in schools and the translation of citizenship on the curriculum into citizens' service for all. Doing so could develop valuable personal skills that would stand them in good stead at work or in university.

But there is little such understanding in Cameron's 'here today, gone tomorrow' speech. Commercial loans for social enterprises will hardly encourage a flurry of activity, and seem yet another example of how the banks have hoodwinked the coalition. Of course, the civil service will rebrand lots of initiatives as Big Society to please their masters, just as they did with theThird Way when it was the phrase of the moment, and as they have rebranded plenty of fairly ordinary school proposals as 'Free Schools' to beef up the numbers in the DFE. But if Cameron genuinely wants to realise what he says is his great mission, he needs to start with young people, be honest about the cuts, recognise the true potential of mutual and social enterprises, and find ways to support those who give of their time as volunteers. Unless he does so, the Big Society really will be so much BS.

This post also appears at Public Finance.

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