Richard Wilson argues that we need a ‘Big Society Bottom Line’ in order to ensure that the cuts agenda delivers reform as well as savings.
The row over housing benefit cuts and the warning from Boris Johnson that we may face a possible “Kosovo-style social cleansing” of poorer people from our big cities has starkly highlighted a key challenge facing the coalition; how to balance its zeal between economy and community?
The genius of this young government so far has been to tie a values based vision to the cuts. And that vision is the Big Society. There has been a lot of debate about the Big Society being undermined by the cuts, being seen by many as a fig leaf for excessive cost cutting. The debate in France, on the contrary, centres around how far cuts can bring about meaningful reform without a Big Societyesque vision. In France this lack of vision is creating a lot of anger from all sides.
So is the Big Society a fig leaf? Or not? Will the cuts be made in such a way as to radically reform how we behave as citizens and strengthen our communities? Or not?
It is clear that this administration has learnt from the Blair government, not wasting the initial ‘honeymoon’ period, but instead being bold right from the start. Hence the radical spending review we saw a couple of weeks ago. But in the dash to capitalise on novelty, it certainly feels to any interested onlooker that reform is playing second fiddle to cuts.
How else do you explain last weeks embarrassing intervention from Boris, or the even more recent clash between Osborne and IDS on child benefits? It smacks of a government (or an individual) prioritising cuts over reform.
There is already a frosty relationship developing between Number 10 and the Treasury on precisely this issue, with Cameron desperately trying to force Osborne to tie the cuts to reform; and we’re only 5 months in. That beats Blair and Brown.
If Cameron is to allay the fears of his party and the public that the cuts will not lead to genuine reform, he needs a mechanism to do so demonstrably, inside and outside of government.
In that spirit I recommend a ‘Big Society Bottom Line’ – borrowed directly from the triple bottom line, where responsible organisations value people, planet and profit. This is not a woolly eco proposition but is the basis for the UN standard for urban and community accounting and has been adopted by various leading companies such as Starbucks and HP.
Creating a ‘Big Society Bottom Line’ which explicitly accounted for the impact on people, planet and profit would demonstrate that this prime minister is making ‘compassionate conservatism’ a reality. Making good on his Big Society and green credentials, which is after all what made them electable to many for the first time in over a decade. It would also create a transparent mechanism for the public and the press to measure and scrutinise his progress and a tool to ensure that departments (especially the Treasury) are delivering the reform needed to ensure that the current pain, will lead to long term gain. And without such a measure? Well tighten the shutters everyone, the scary party is back. And, it’s serious.