Nick Nielsen and Richard Wilson explore how the cuts agenda is interacting with the Big Society and raising the bar for demonstrable change.

We’ve spent the last decade trying to convince government to open up and get more people involved, albeit with varying degrees of success. That said the last eight months have marked a significant watershed and there is no doubt that there is greater willingness now, in almost all quarters, to open government up and innovate, than we have seen for many decades, perhaps ever before.

Why is this? What’s really changed? Well of course, it’s the economy, stupid. Economic necessity is forcing the public sector to be radical. But the trajectory of that radicalism is being guided by the Big Society vision and its associated policies such as the Localism Bill and the Giving Green paper. So in effect, the Big Society is channelling much of the radical thinking into my territory – and having a big impact.

Many have argued that the Big Society is a fig leaf for the cuts, dressing them up as  positive social engineering. Others have responded, saying that Cameron and his team are long standing big society believers. Both are clearly true.

At izwe we’ve been doing some work on the interplay between the cuts and the big society, and the potential consequences. A product of this thinking has been the simple Venn diagram below. The diagram illustrates that whether you think the Big Society is a fig leaf for the cuts or a carrot for government reform, this interplay is creating powerful pressures to deliver in areas such as service innovation and co-production; approaches that have tended to perform better in think tank pamphlets than on city streets.

Fig Leaf or Carrot

The diagram helps us to distinguish between what needs to happen purely because of the cuts, what are purely Big Society initiatives, and where the Big Society vision provides opportunities for greater efficiencies and decentralisation.

It is those activities in the overlapping central space which are likely to form the core foundations of any lasting local Big Society strategies. This is where core service delivery and Big Society come together, making Big Society activities part of essential services, not optional extras. This diagram therefore also helps an organisation prioritise, critical during a period of intense budgetary pressure.

So far we’ve identified the following activities in this central space:

  • Service innovation & co-production
  • New forms of more efficient engagement for better relationships, legitimacy and bottom-up innovation (what we call third generation engagement)
  • Use of ICT especially social media for enhanced feedback & relationships
  • Internal cultural change & skills development involving public sector staff, elected members and community organisations.

There will be others that we have missed please let us know.

We think this can be distilled in to a simple four-step plan for your Big Society strategy:

    • 1. Create your own vision and empower your people to pursue it
    • 2. Identify those internal and external leaders with willingness and ability to drive the vision forward
    • 3. Share information internally and externally to learn from others
    • 4. Map all assets (from hard e.g. buildings to soft e.g. brand and trust) and think creatively about how to maximise benefits from them.

And probably more important than the steps we’ve identified are some useful principles underpinning any approach:

Don’t worry about involving everyone in everything: A key trap of the Big Society is assuming that everyone has an equal voice on everything. It’s not the case we all have expertise and enthusiasm in different areas.

Embrace the diversity and uncertainty: effective change is very often not simply the product of clear plans – but flexible processes that embrace new ideas and the unexpected.

To be truly innovative, the changes required are too great to centrally control: relying on people and their innovative potential in every area will unleash far more potential than a centrally controlled implementation plan. It does require real leadership, requiring real transparency and vision.

Be transparent, but not just with data: naming difficulties and uncertainties, in the context of a clear and aspirational long-term vision, will be vital to get the best of people. Validate their concerns and insecurities by demonstrating your own vulnerability, while holding to inspiration, determination and trust.

Create conditions that support and allow change: this could be ensuring the senior staff are on board or setting expectations that there will be some diversity and uncertainty and that’s a good thing.

Good luck and we look forward to hearing and learning from how you get on.

– picture credits to: http://www.flickr.com/photos/extrajection/2862164735/

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3 Responses to Fig Leaf or Carrot, The Big Society is Driven By The Cuts

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Fig Leaf or Carrot, The Big Society is Driven By The Cuts | Izwe Project -- Topsy.com

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  3. John Shewell says:

    This is an interesting conversation and one that many are still trying to work through.

    The idea of co-designing and co-delivering solutions is an old one, but we’re trying to find a way to make it fit in a 21st Century context.

    The driver for this approach is obviously the state of public sector finances. As at November 2010, the national public sector debt stood at about £863.1 billion (58% of GDP) compared to £709.6 billion in November 2009.

    In short, the debt is growing each day. Predictions are that the debt will reach £1 trillion by the end of this year. So we are in an unsustainable position and something must be done.

    It is often said that necessity is the mother of innovation. This is true today. So is Big Society a fig leaf for cuts? Yes and No. It’s a combination. In a way, the public sector is standing at a crossroad scratching its head while staring at a sign that points in three directions: the first points to innovation, the second points to cuts and the third points to a combination – but all lead to change.

    A quick look at the Prime Minister’s speech which he delivered at the RSA on NHS reform and wider public service innovation shows that he was very much focussed on improving public services overall by creating a “race to the top”. This is when organisations focus on outcomes that improve lives rather than salami slice budgets that diminish services. One is a holistic assessment based on people’s needs, whilst the other is about balancing the books.

    I’m not saying that balancing the books isn’t important, but one should not exclude the other. This is the dual challenge for public services: improving outcomes and balancing the books. I have deliberately over-simplified the issue in order to make a complicated point.

    Therefore, organisations need to start with the outcomes and collaborate with the community, public, third and private sector partners in order to deliver solutions that matter most to residents. But in order to understand the outcomes, public sector organisations need to understand what the community needs in order to base their decisions – this can only be achieved through dialogue and collaboration. Once outcomes and needs have been established, then public sector organisations can go about pooling resources around the needs of their communities in order to deliver the stated outcomes.

    At Brighton & Hove City Council we have started this process by redesigning the organisation so it takes a more outward facing role. We have already designed services by placing residents at the heart of the decision-making process. And we’re now in the process of creating a CityCamp event (4-6 March) in which we hope to connect the community and the public sector in order to innovate services that will ultimately benefit residents. This type of close collaboration – even handing over the problem for others to solve and deliver – is what the Big Society is all about, but it’s a concept that’s been kicking around for some time. We’re just trying to find a way to make it fit for the 21st Century.

    In some respects we’re trying to create the “Modern Village”.

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