As we head towards the release of the Decentralisation and Localism Bill my thoughts turn to the impact it may have on Big Society, prompted by an NLGN event this last week. Originally it appeared to be a dualistic term, replacing big government with Big Society. However it is now becoming a wide-ranging and ever more nebulous concept which we will know when we see it. For me, ‘Big Society’ is synonymous with engaged community, strong social networks, etc. Clearly the term has a politically charged currency, but for ease of use I will continue to use it here rather than a litany of other possible phrases.
In a world made up of state, market and civil society (as clearly described by Prof. John Benington in a range of his writings – this link provides a good summary). Big Society is often taken as being a replacement term for civil society, rather than just ‘not government’, but I think that this leaves out the societal contribution of the market. This extends from the heady heights of corporate social responsibility, what we all used to call CSR before 20th October, to the social structures that exist both in large employers and between SMEs in chambers of commerce, and to the fact that shopping is now a highly rated social activity; the private sector has, I believe, a role to play in Big Society thoughts. Furthermore, it is clear that social development and networks occur differently depending upon whether an area has one or two large employers or a patchwork of much smaller ones, or indeed none at all.
A further thought was prompted by considering whether volunteering or social enterprise necessarily contribute to Big Society. This came out of a discussion at the event about ends and means, a good or better society being the ends, and Big Society being the means. However I think that actually it is neither, but is more about the values implicit within the workings of society, maybe almost big-hearted society, a state of being rather than acting, calling into question some of the assertions to date about Big Society.
Let’s consider the work of Robert Putnam again. He made a distinction between bonding social capital, as found in the social ties of close communities, and bridging social capital, as found in networks and communities of interest. A balanced society needs both if it is to develop. Bonding for a rooted sense of itself, bridging to ensure that it is open to change and the information it needs to develop. Big Society thinking values volunteering as a way of contributing to the greater good. This is all very well, but in Putnam’s terms this is not sufficient, for volunteering is a bridging activity which does not imply the symbiosis of strong bonding. Both, of course, are better than nothing!
The key questions for me are of capacity, know-how and willingness to try and make things better within the community. Whilst Big Society’s initial aims were to take power away from politicians and give it to people, there is no doubt in my mind that local politicians in particular have a community development role to play here, one that many perform excellent already. However there are some places where even the best efforts of those involved struggle to develop anything more than the most basic contribution against a tide of breakdown of legitimate community forms and some strong and distinctly shadowy community networks, because social capital applies to both informal and unlawful activities as much as it does to legitimate ones.
Here, then, I return to my theme in a previous post. Big Society is actually likely to be made up of and work best in small cells of place and interest. It is different, I believe, from the common good, which will always be on a scale just larger than our own point of interest. There will always be the need to balance the aspirations, contributions, prejudices or fears of the neighbourhood with those other neighbourhoods in the town, city or county, and in this there is also a geographic element to Big Society which has yet to be explored. There will always be the national need above these and the regional and global flows and pressures in their turn. And of course the brokering of the common good above community interest is the purpose of democracies if they are not to descend to pork barrel politics.
Furthermore, it is hard to see how Big Society, which feels largely like a coalition of the willing, can become involved in regulation and intervention. Even if one was to pare back legislation to that covered by the Magna Carta, the remainder would be a mix of freedoms and trading standards. This is not at all to decry Big Society efforts and community development, I agree completely that communities, like individuals given personalised care, know best what they need. However there is inevitably a point where one community’s perceived needs will only be able to be satisfied at the expense of another’s. That’s the point where government, of some sort, is needed and where I start to return to public value thoughts that have also been mentioned in other posts in this blog.
To conclude, I have no doubt that the Big Society idea is worth pursuing, whatever name it is given, because it must be better than the void that some neighbourhoods and places have been bound within for decades. Many of the aspirations surrounding the policy direction are ethically strong, but run the risk of unforeseen consequences because they disregard and downplay ideas of the common good, arguably out of an apparent mistrust of politics and political structures (both local and general) by national politicians. This will be a real challenge for the various Big Society vanguard projects and the many others that contain similar elements. For the concept of Big Society to have long term currency, these will need to be addressed as the idea is worked through, along with its party political associations.