Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, trails tomorrow’s Comprehensive Spending Review (aka What’s Going to be Cut) with a hint that local authorities will get less money but more freedom to spend it.
He argues that amidst the news of cuts there should be mention of the Big Society, because it offers far more than the easily-caricatured idea of volunteers stepping in to provide cut-back public services.
Big Society is relevant at a time of austerity because it can, potentially, help us think about releasing assets of three types: in the individual, the community, and the organisation.
(I’m experimenting here with auto posting to my socialreporter blog, and tweeting. Let’s see if it works. I’m using Amplify to post about Big Society here. By including the hashtag and @rsamatthew in the headline I’ve created something that can be usefully autoposted to Twitter)
At the level of the individual we know that people accept that they should engage more and give more back to society. While three quarters of respondents regularly tell pollsters that local people should have more influence over local decision-making, fewer than a quarter say they are prepared to participate in community activity themselves. The Big Society is about releasing this asset by making it easier, more enjoyable and more powerful for people to engage.
At the level of the community, we know that even deprived neighbourhoods have many human assets. For example, there are often strong social networks but these are hidden from policy makers and service providers, different networks don’t always join up and many people who could join in are isolated (these are all findings from the RSA Connected Communities project in New Cross). The Big Society is about a deeper understanding of community assets and how to foster and mobilise them.
At the level of organisations a huge amount of benign social potential is wasted. The reasons are many ranging from unclear mission, lack of ambition and an overload of external demands and targets to a failure to engage and innovate or the deadening impact of organisational culture. The Big Society approach challenges organisations in the public, private and voluntary sector to maximise the social multiplier effect of their actions (this is what the RSA 2020 Public Service Commission meant by ‘social productivity’).
In the face of a lot of bad news tomorrow, people who think (for reasons good and bad) the Big Society is vacuous or a scam will have an easy script from which to read. The rest of us, with a more positive inclination, need to sharpen our argument and deepen our evidence that whatever the immediate context our country cannot flourish in the long term unless we get better at mobilising social assets.