Big Society in crisis? It's just becoming big society

Opinion surveys and a report from ACEVO – which represents the chief executives of voluntary organisations – have led to a fresh round of stories about how Big Society is doomed, the government must try harder, no-one understands it, and more seriously that BS policies will increase inequality.

The Independent on Sunday headlines The Big Society in crisis: Are the wheels coming off the PM’s Big Idea?. The Guardian says Government urged to take a strong lead in Big Society, Third Sector magazine reports Banks missed ‘historic opportunity’ to support voluntary sector and i-volunteer blogs that Forty percent of people still don’t know what the big society means.

There’s clearly substance in all the stories, although some are more negative than the tone of the ACEVO report (Word doc) which “embraces the Big Society as an agenda” while calling on the Government to “fill in the blanks” on contributions from banks, support for deprived communities … and also improve communication and leadership.

However, I think that the way which we can best understand Big Society is changing. (Warning: mixed metaphors follow).

The Big Society in crisis/wheels coming off headline is an old one: see the Political Scrapbook round-up from February. More perceptive was this earlier summary from Adrian Brown, who concluded that what we were seeing was “The end of the beginning for the Big Society”. What was needed, said Adrian, was for Government to put into place the specifics of its Big Society agenda.

I doubt that debating the finer points of the Big Society will get us much further. What the government requires now are tangible examples of what the Big Society looks like in reality building on the tentative steps already taken. It needs to move from talking to doing – recognising that this won’t happen overnight.

It will take time for new community groups to take over libraries; for free schools to be set-up; for the Big Society Bank to be established; and for police commissioners to be elected. This is to be expected, change on this scale is bound to take time. That doesn’t mean the entire project is doomed but rather the importance of sticking the course if you are embarking on any change of this scale.

Like it or not, that’s what’s now happening, with detailed plans on localism, public service procurement, volunteering, philanthropy and the Big Society Bank now emerging or in prospect. Here’s the official version from the Cabinet Office.

As one insider remarked to me: “Big Society is dead, long live big society. We have moved on from the Big stage and are now at the implementation stage. BS was about changing mind sets, getting conversations started, giving impetus for change. Now we are onto outcomes; outcomes of localism bill, procurement rules”.

The wheels aren’t coming off, because we aren’t in any one vehicle. A better metaphor might be that the political billboards promoting Big Society are coming down, and instead we are seeing a big society landscape where some roads – and communities – are likely to be more favoured than others.

What Government is doing is changing the terms of engagement, and the territory on which any further conflicts will be played out.

This will still leave some people very angry about the spending cuts of the recent past, anxious about the future, and uncertain just how to engage. Other will say big society is here to stay, see what you can do in the circumstances. An exchange on Our Society between Colin Miller and James Derournian highlights this. Colin explains why he is angry and doesn’t want to engage with BS, James says BS is effectively the only game in town: shout, be angry, campaign … but try and make it work to your/our advantage.

One area where the Prime Minister, David Cameron, is still talking up Big Society in capitals is the Big Society Awards programme, where individuals, groups or organisations are acknowledged for promoting social action, empowering communities, or opening up public services.

There’s no money: you get a plaque, signed certificate from the PM, an electronic logo, and invite to receptions at No 10, plus a press release about your project on the No 10 website. Here for example is one for the Wotton under Edge Swimming Pool Club.

Opponents of Big Society may say that this is a cynical attempt to exploit, at no cost, the work of groups who have been doing this sort of work for years, and in many places are now suffering under the cuts. If the Big Society rhetoric – and funding policies – had recognised this work from the start the whole things would have been more favourably received.

A fair point. But is it time to move on, in the new landscape, where the armies of BS romantics and critics may be fighting over ground that is fast changing under their feet? Or if you prefer another analogy, the game has changed, and while the pitch is big society, there’s a chance to make up some of your own rules.

On this interpretation, if the PM offers you a chances to promote your project on the No 10 website, go for it.

What I would like to see is some chance of exposure for those who don’t get picked for Mr Cameron’s top team, but who have some experience to share with others. If there were some way of showing all the applicants, somewhere, and the stories that they want to tell, it could provide some win-win opportunities all round. First transparency, and a chance to discuss the critieria on which Mr Cameron made his selection, and from that more understanding of what big society may be about in his view. We can then advance our own. Second, modest promotion for anyone prepared to tell their stories. Third, a potential network of people prepared to share their experience with others.

(There is, of course, a Big Society Network, which was originally to be a mass membership organisation. That idea for the country’s biggest mutual has now shifted to Your Square Mile, which I wrote about here, and BSN is focussing on its own range of innovative projects and programmes, which you can read about on their new website. More about the work that Steve Moore and his team are doing another time. Maybe they can help through a link with their planned BSN Local programme).

The deadline for the next round of Big Society Awards has been extended to May 23 (details here), and I gather projects using digital media would be very welcome. Cabinet Office have kindly offered further briefing, so I’ll report back when I know more.

(Disclosure: I worked for BSN for a couple of months last year, and I’m a founder member of Our Society, where we already offer encouragement for people to tell stories about their local projects. Do join us.)


  • James Derounian
    May 16, 2011 - 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Thanks – as ever – David.

    I partially agree with your view that it’s “time to move on, in the new landscape”……

    But also believe that we should remember the ‘old’/passing CD landscape: Partly so we don’t just waste time & resources on re-invention, and also to celebrate and recognise that the present ‘landscape’ has lots of good features – skilled practitioners, experience, wisdom, good practice & projects that work etc

    Still feels to me that the BigSoc ‘house’ is being assembled just as the foundations are being undermined (by cuts)!


  • May 16, 2011 - 7:24 pm | Permalink

    Those people who keep asking the government to “Take a Strong Lead in The Big Society”, are just showing that they haven’t got a clue about what The Big Society is all about! The whole concept is based on the fact that the Government cannot afford nor does it hope to hold the solution to all of societies problems. The Big Society hands power back to the communities in order that they can become creative in solving its key problems with government support.

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