Is the Big Society a Blank Canvas or Blank Map?

Last Thursday was a very daunting day for me. It was my first day back in the office for over a month. But it was daunting not, as you might imagine, because of having to wake up before noon, or suffer the proximity of other people on my commute. It was daunting because I knew that something powerfully addictive was waiting for me in the office. It lives in my computer. It’s always there, demanding my attention and eating my time. My evenings and weekends have become consumed by its power. I’m becoming fatter and poorer as my gym membership goes unused and I spend more money on microwave meals. My wife has issued the ultimatum: ‘It’s me or the computer. Choose’. It’s tough. It’s a life I don’t like and I’d made a promise not to go back to it; but as ever I’ve caved in to the irresistible force within my computer. The force that is the #bigsociety buzz.

The endless tweets, blogs, papers, videos all accessible through #bigsociety have become the script to my life since May. I no longer watch TV or read the paper: unless , of course, it’s been recommended to me by #bigsociety. Perhaps you know what I mean – you’re like me, right now hooked to your computer, and try as you might just can’t look away from the screen.

But still, after all this time, can you honestly tell me how much you feel you really know about the big society? How it’s going to work in practice? How it might affect your life, your work, your community? We’ve read paper after paper – N Squared, Growing The Big Society, Connected Communities, Investing in Social Growth -  but is any of it any more than hot air? I should know – I’ve produced enough.

Does that bother you?  Probably not. I suppose you’re a well balanced person with a sublime work-life balance who just enjoys the odd glance at #bigsociety. You perhaps find my addiction amusing rather than familiar, but bear with me, because it bothered me: the suspicion that I’ve been sacrificing my life for nothing of substance.

Then yesterday it all changed. The location for this enlightenment experience was a room in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire (the Lord works in mysterious ways) with 30 local authority practitioners. I finally realised a simple point.  There is no detail. The canvas is blank.

This is the profound shift that Pickles, Cameron, Wilcox, Wei and others have been talking about. I’ve always thought of myself as pretty innovative – I’ve started a social enterprise or two; I’m pretty open minded – come up with a new idea or two; and I’m willing to embrace change – supported a policy shift or two. But the profundity of this point that’s been there for so long was hidden to me. Though I’ve been advocating decentralisation of power for my entire adult life, I couldn’t see it – perhaps because I’d never seen it before.

On holiday I read David Wilcox’s There is no Big Society Big Plan. It seemed like an important point for how the national plan was being developed, and it played to natural anarchic tendencies of the twitteratti. Interesting, but not news. Not until yesterday when we talked it through with members of the community sector and local government did the penny and its momentous consequences drop. You could hear a shower of loose change land and scatter across the parquet floor. It’s one thing to say to some bloggers ‘There is no Big Society Big Plan, and no-one is in charge’, something profoundly different when you’re planning local service delivery with slashed budgets.

I’ve been hooked to #bigsociety unconsciously waiting for a sign, some substance to get stuck into. And its lack was draining my energy. Now I know that that’s the point. Now I know that this is what decentralisation is; what the actual bottom-up looks like. Now I can unhook myself from the #bigsociety drip and actually get on with building the real Big Society. Or at least give it my best shot.

This has probably been obvious to you for a long time. But if I’ve been slow on the uptake, judging from yesterday I’m not the only one. This subtle but profound cultural shift at the heart of the Big Society could unleash all our creative potentials. Of course it comes with a small proviso: what if we all lose our jobs and the economy collapses. But you need a crisis to spark a revolution. We’ve got the former and we badly need the latter.

If the rhetoric of decentralisation and genuine localism is to be believed, it is a powerful lens that cuts clearly through the #bigsociety fog and gives us all license to use the #bigsociety information machine however we want. I just wonder how many of us have noticed the lens, let alone looked through it. Still more importantly, I wonder what those who have looked through the fog have seen. The uncertainty of a blank map?  Or the opportunity of a blank canvas?

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9 Responses to Cutting Through the #Bigsociety Fog

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Cutting Through the #Bigsociety Fog | Izwe Project --

  2. Kevin Dykes says:

    like a lot of brilliant ideas dreamed up by somebody leading a political party, it is all things to all people, and yes Richard is right therefore, it can be very useful indeed to community development professionals. But don’t underestimate that it can also be interpreted in very different ways, the obvious one being big society/small state. Whoever does very practical things with this idea in their own locality will win it as a part of their existing narratives, so why am I wasting time writing comments I wonder….cheers.

  3. Chris Church says:

    The idea of the Big Society as a blank anything needs careful analysis. But there seems to be two very ideologically-driven aspects. Cameron has made it clear that the ‘state’ is to be shrunk. The idea that civil society can take on the function of the state is an enticing one but civil society will then go up against the private sector when it comes to taking on running services.

    Local service provision is a hugely popular idea. The experience of some changes such as asset transfer has been very positive to date. But the experience of social enterprises running local services has not been entirely satisfactory. Community businesses have come forward to run such services and done a good job (doorstep recycling is one good example) only to find themselves losing the contract when it comes up for renewal to a large multi-national.

    It is hard to imagine that any government would rig the market to ensure that a local social enterprise will deliver local services indefinitely.There will always be new niches to explore for such social entrepreneurs, but the overwhelming likelihood, based on current evidence, is that many services taken on by local people will end up in share-holder controlled companies with no local interest.

    The idea of the functions of the state being handed over to private enterprise is hardly new. This is core Conservative / neo-liberal ideology. If it passes through civil society’s hands en route then that’s clearly not privatisation! I can of course be accused of negativity / paranoia, but in the absence of any clarity on this from government the process I have described seems rather inevitable?

    Civil society is also to run planning – the CLG phrase is “Putting communities in charge of planning” and about “allowing communities to decide where to create new homes, shops, businesses and facilities where they want them and where they are needed”.

    What ‘communities’ will be ‘in charge’? Is this to be some form of elected body, within or without the council? Or would planning decisions be made by local referenda or open public meetings? Or would decisions be made by those living within a certain range of a proposed development? Critically, how local is ‘local’? Greg Clark’s statement used in Big Society presentations talk about how the state that “had invaded civil society – sucking everything towards it in the name of ‘stake-holding’ ”. Does this mean that non-local people (who might nevertheless have a stake or view on a proposal) will be excluded?

    A range of potential planning issues are immediately clear:
    • Resident groups in towns and villages are often opposed to new housing – will such groups have a veto? (and how does this match up with ‘Meeting people’s housing aspirations’ – another BS aim?)
    • Strategic projects (such as the new high speed rail link) arouse local opposition – at what level will power be taken out of local hands?
    • Innovative projects (wind farms are just one such) are often unpopular – again, would the power to reject rest solely with communities?
    • Unpopular sites (travellers sites, prisons, waste facilities) all need to go somewhere. Will ‘not in my backyard’ reign supreme?
    • If a local community decides for whatever reason (including financial gain) that their local green belt is affecting people’s housing aspirations (or the desire for a new supermarket), what will happen then?

    Inherent in this last point is the financial issue. There have been many proven cases where members and chairs of council planning committees have been guilty of corruption. With clearly elected officials there are at least clear legal backstops: if planning fora are open to a much wider public how will people’s personal and financial interests be transparent?

    Underlying this are longer-term plans. Development plans and frameworks have played a key role in controlling development and protecting green spaces. If ‘communities’ are to be ‘in charge’ will they be setting up the framework and expected to abide by it or will local referenda or action groups be able to rewrite it on a case-by-case basis?

    This seems to set the scene for an ultra-localist / nimbyist perspective. The creation of such communities might set the scene for parts of the UK to resemble the more retrograde parts of the mid-western USA, always ready to vote for the furthest right perspective.

    Convince me I’m wrong!

  4. cliff says:

    I think that’s right, it isnt just a “the people will do it” thing, it’s a “the people will think up their own ideas on what to do” thing. And people are doing it too – individuals, social agencies, commercial agencies, techies, all sorts. We are seeing a trickle of great new approaches which feels like its growing and will turn into a rush. There are still many obstacles, bureaucratic restrictions, monopoly interests blocking action, lack of start up finance, cultural norms, all that. None the less we are seeing bigger ideas and more lateral, radical approaches.
    But! It doesnt feel like a blank canvas to a pensioner who loses their home help or meals on wheels. Or to a public sector worker laid off. Even those who see the Big Society as a nirvana to be reached must know the journey will be bloody and painful – in part just because of economic circumstances, but also and more controversially the chosen political response to those circumstances.
    I dont think the blank canvas metaphor feels right given that reality. It leaves the victims of transition to be abandoned, rather than helped and involved.

  5. I’m delighted to hear you had an oceanic feeling but it’s no way to run a railroad. Up to half way through I was hoping you were being satirical but by the end I ran out of chuckle. The sense of openness, structurelessness, open doors to all comers is part of a cycle of thinking and critique of structures but at the end of the day its the way things crystallise into structures that determines what happens next. It’s the old achilles’ heel of anarchism: the ideal is appealing but if you voluntarily give up structure what happens is not unstructured freedom but being taken over by those people and systems that have not given up structure, which gleefully rush into the vaccuum. Chris Church’s comments illustrate this. So the answer is to keep opening up to the oceanic side but use it to critique and amend structures; and when those amended structures themselves ossify or produce the wrong unintended consequences, do it again. In other words vigorous democracy. Big Society could be part of the cycle but by refusing to engage with structures it is in danger of ending up being (literally) de-structive. The fundamental theoretical error is not recognising that local communities are themselves the source of the empowerment of authorities as well as reserving some powers to themselves. In other words we endorse the concentration of power in the state and its agencies because there are a variety of things that are much better and more economically done by concentration of power – so long as that power is constantly monitored and held to account. Society is run by citizens partly directly (personal, household, community) and partly indirectly (by vesting power in the state and holding it to account. The idea of ‘shifting power from the state to the community’ fatally overlooks the fact that the state should already be accountable to the community of communities. It covertly legitimises the state as having ‘its own’ interests rather than the interests of the people, whilst giving people th illusion that they are being ‘given back’ the power to do for themselves things which actually require delegation to large-scale but accountable systems. If it’s no longer obvious that the state is itself empowered by communities then there needs to be a reinvigoration of formal democracy alongside a possible rebalancing of the boundary between state action and community action. Big society should therefore be focussing on the management of this dual role, on rebalancing, on coproduction, on how better community involvement can be linked with better service delivery and yes, what improvements in structures and strategies would foster this. The BS refusal of structure also extends to refusing to recognise that the third sector itself has inherent structures, and that these internal relationships need to be understood if you want to strengthen the sector as a whole. Social enterprises are indiscriminately equated with community groups, and community groups with whole communities; GPs and other state agents are encouraged to form social enterprises in order to bid for state business – all in the name of big society. I’m afraid your first instinct was right – it is a fog. The only way out is by finding a map. The oceanic phase has done its job. Now we need some proper focus. See

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  7. Dan Sumners says:

    “…what if we all lose our jobs and the economy collapses. But you need a crisis to spark a revolution. We’ve got the former and we badly need the latter.”

    We are not in crisis and there will not be a revolution.

    There are people in the world who really do live in a situation of crisis and for any of us comfortable middle class people (most of the country) to sit at our expensive machines and suggest that we do too is little short of offensive.

    People already solve their problems for themselves, and the best solution we have ever come up with is the welfare state. Saying there is no plan will not result in a ‘revolution’ – they are huge upheavels in the order of society that happen naturally, as the result of myriad factors – even if what you envisage were a ‘revolution’ rather than a small shift in power.

    I can understand why you’re excited about the possibilities, but I think we need to remain grounded. In this way we’ll be able to see both the positive and the negative. For example, those best placed to help themselves will probably be those least in need. Do we need more faux public schools in middle class areas? No, but it is those parents that will be able to navigate the system and set them up. How will ‘neighbourhoods’ agree on what they want – and what will happen when there is fundamental disagreement?

    Your optimism completely ignores the fact that power is distributed unevenly in society, and usually as a result of inequality of opportunity. The purpose of the state is to ensure equality of opportunity, but if those who have the most opportunity take over the delivery of public services, who will they benefit most?

    My main point is, you pose a false dichotomy, between uncertainty and opportunity. As with most things, the current situation offers uncertainty, opportunity, and much more besides. We should not become too excited in either direction, but soberly approach this attempt at a mild culture shift.

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  9. Judith Hanna says:

    A ‘big society’ in which people have roughly equal resources, along with a mix of diverse skills, interests, and talents, could be the basis for arguing our way to utopia. A DIY ‘Big Society’ that amounts to letting the little people roll around doing their own thing, many of them set loose from paying work in a society that still treats money as the over-riding value, with few bounds on the ability of those who have most status and power to set their own rewards, seems set merely to transform and compound the social problems created by inequality.

    Two pieces of research: when I was at National Centre for Volunteering, one of our volunteers (Solomon Jayawadere), fresh from doing his masters in international development in Sri Lanka, looked at how rates of volunteering correlate with GDP, for those countries with national volunteering data: when GDP went up, so did volunteering; when GDP went down, so did volunteering. Within the UK, involvement in volunteering is highest among well-off, well-educated professionals — low among disadvantaged and financially insecure groups including ethnic minorities, disabled people, and young people — whose highest priority for time and energy is, of course, improving their own security and well-being. There’s a fairly well-established correlation between ‘happiness’ and volunteering involvement — interpreted by Layard and other ‘happiness’ experts as ‘volunteering makes people happier’. Solomon’s exercise suggests, as with a survey recently reported in the papers, that the causality is at least as much the other way: happiness, based on security about one’s one wellbeing, causes volunteering. This seems a fundamental challenge for the new shiny ‘big society’.

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