Daniel Goodwin

Me, people like us and the common good

Looking back over some previous posts, on the authorising environment, public value and social capital, and thinking about the focus for discussions on the public sector, I have realised that there is a gap. For there are really three aspects to public management. Firstly, those services which are offered to benefit particular individuals, increasingly through personalisation and co-production. Then there are services offered which directly benefit particular groups, which are increasingly been seen as needing a ‘Big Society’ or community development approach, and once again with an element of co-production by the group. However there is not a great deal happening to develop ideas about the common good.

This could be a problem, because there are difficult decisions that need to be brokered for the greater benefit of society. How do we begin to address this, in line with the emerging new frameworks, and what would co-production look like with regard to it, if indeed it is possible?

There has been some consideration of community planning, where local people get together to propose arrangements for the affordable housing they need or some other local development. However there has been little emphasis as yet on how ‘Big Society’ ideas could best be applied to the difficult decisions required in regulatory services, national planning for sustainability or other key decisions. This requires some thought about the wider social responsibility of communities might be, how it might be developed and who might lead it. For housing, a range of incentives has been proposed, but what happens if incentives are seen as inducements and/or a change, for example for a high speed rail link, is rejected at any price? The core purpose of democratic government as a whole, and of course of taxation, is to enable essential decision making such as this to take place in an environment which draws on the inputs of communities and their elected representatives. Is there a danger that this important function, which can sometimes be highly unpopular, is cast into the shadows by more attractive and apparently easier answers to the differing issues of personalisation and Big Society?

Personalisation of services is great and can save money, there are obvious benefits to good community engagement and co-production where people see benefits for ‘people like us’ but why should they decide to do something for people elsewhere who are not like them? A healthy society is like a three legged stool where individual, community and the national good are held in healthy tension and it is time that some further thinking was given to that balance.

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3 comments on “Me, people like us and the common good

  1. Phil Green
    November 11, 2010

    “… there is not a great deal happening to develop ideas about the common good.. < too true, unfortunately. It'll be interesting to see if there's any sort of 'Big Society' approach to Rio 2012 (not holding my breath!) Had I found this directly (rather than indirectly) from twitter I'd have retweeted.

  2. Adam Blackie's Blog
    December 21, 2010

    Hi Daniel,

    In your blog you refer to balancing the needs of “individual, community and the national good”. What I am wondering is whether a common consensus can ever exists about what these terms mean. So can there ever be a balance?

    – Individual is easy. Society seems to be defaulting to the needs of the individual above all else.

    – Community is a little more difficult. What does this mean? In any town, even one as compact as St Albans, there are lots of ways to draw a line around communities. Some: Ethnic, Geographic, Religious and Social, are obvious. How does government know that it is addressing community when it’s definition is so fluid?

    – Finally, the national good. This category is the most diverse. Separation of the regions from Westminster is well under way. I have worked across the UK in the last 10 years and my experience of the North, South, East and West is that they are very different places, with different attitudes, customs and practices.

    The Big Society policy is attractive because it appeals to our sense of individual need. It is a move away from centralising government. But, there is a danger that Personalisation of services will move our society more towards the attitudes of individualism, and not community.

    Is the real gap in Community Leadership? Without it there is a danger that we will perpetuate Big Government or become more selfish towards our neighbours.

  3. Daniel Goodwin
    December 23, 2010

    Adam, thanks for your comment.

    Actually in my post I consciously did not mention the national good, I talked about the common good for precisely the reasons that you set out in your post. Community is indeed a very fluid thing, and so when I talked about the common good it was to speak of interests that might apply beyond those of our normal orbit, whether in space or time. This could of course be local, regional, national or international, now, soon or in the deep future.

    Also, there is a difference to my mind between personalisation of public services and the pursuit of individualism. The former is about ensuring that individuals have control, particularly with regard to care rather than being ‘done to’ by the state,this could be particularly powerful where individuals come together to take charge of their needs. The latter is as you suggest potentially harmful if it cuts people off from each other in a fulfilment of notions that ‘there is no such thing as society’.

    Finally, I think that you have hit the nail on the head about the question of community leadership. Just what is it that makes it work and how can it be fostered? What does ‘good’ look like? I suspect that we will need to remember that what matters is the quality of outcome for the community must be held in tension with the quality of process within it. The human tension between doing and being.

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