During my recent three intensive days in London, presenting at the Department for Communities and Local Government, at the Overseas Development Institute, and at The Guardian’s Public Services Summit 2011, the hot topic was the Coalition Government’s vision for a Big Society. In the face of some first setbacks, such as the withdrawal of one of the pilot cities, Liverpool, will the vision prove resilient enough? And more fundamentally, how to make the grand idea a reality while public service budgets are cut so massively?
What to make of it?
On the one hand, Britain is clearly endowed with extremely smart, engaged and capable public servants and not-for profit and business leaders. They are asking all the right and difficult questions about how a big society vision could be made practical and workable. They are searching for innovative solutions that can help, and they are extremely open to outside input. Even better, in many pockets around the country, it seems that innovative models for new forms of collaboration, engaging citizens and communities, are already up and running. From time banks, were citizens can earn credits for voluntary work and “cash” them for other services, to diversifying service provision to ngos and businesses, and to a growth in service design projects run by the likes of Participle, ThinkPublic and the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement, new approaches are flourishing. Most want to make the big society work.
On the other hand, one senses confusion and frustration. Implementing a major vision for society alongside almost unprecedented cuts to public services is a tough call. As one panel participant said at the Guardian’s public services summit, communities should be seen partners with the state, not as alternatives to it. Following this line of thought made me think that devolving power, finance and responsibility to local governments implies that the local level must become more, not less, of a partner with central government. However, when the new UK local government bill not just devolves power, but also requires an amazingly detailed level of transparency of public expenditure and reporting of it (public bodies must publish all expenditure items above £500 online, and the salaries of senior officials), one can’t help but think: Does central government really trust the local level to be able to step up to the challenge? Are central government departments prepared to let go, perhaps limiting themselves to demanding better outcomes, at less cost, in return? Are national politicians prepared to, in their own words, stop tinkering? If not, can the Big Society become a success?