Interesting news this month that Steve Moore has taken over as Director of the Big Society Network, and that the Network is poised "to launch a new series of events, projects and partnerships over the coming months which will showcase an array of new innovations in support of our remit." Having worked a little with the Network already on their NESTA-funded Your Local Budget platform, I think it's time I posted a few of my thoughts and questions about the Big Society project. Like many others in the social innovation world, I've been tentatively exploring what the "Big Society" actually means and whether I want to be part of it. I think I have a general understanding of what the Big Society is (unlike most of my friends, who have never heard of it at all!), that it is about clearing the way and providing support for individuals and communities to solve their own problems, rather than waiting for the government to save us. Part of this I assume is about removing the regulation and bureaucracy that gets in the way of citizen action and involvement, and part of it is about creating the conditions for individuals and community groups to contribute more to the running and improvement of the society we live in.
This is all good stuff, and certainly my conversations with the individuals involved has confirmed my general sense that there is good work being done here by good people. However, I still have a few significant questions about how it will work in practice, and these are questions to which I need to know the answers before I would be happy to say the Big Society will be a good thing for this country. By posting them I do not intend criticism (and I'll also post some positive Big Society ideas shortly), but to trigger a debate and get some answers, so that we can all be clearer about what we are supporting here. So here goes...
- Does anyone ever get paid? If good work is now to be done on a voluntary basis, then what is the future for those of us who currently earn money improving society? I believe that if we can make improving society something that financially sustains and rewards those who do it, we will get a lot more good done. For many years now, I have been proud to be part of the social enterprise movement, working to create new ways to use business principles and revenue generation to achieve greater social impact. Yet now almost every week I seem to be approached by another public sector organisation asking me to give my time for free to help them transform their business, because "it's a good thing to do". So is money now only to be used to reward people who are not delivering social benefit? Must we all become lawyers and bankers to fund our expensive habit of improving the world? Or should we look instead, as Windsor and Maidenhead have proposed, to alternative currencies to support ourselves? And do we really know what the socio-economic impact of all this will be, particularly on the voluntary sector and the social enterpreneurs that the Big Society claims to support?
- Who's in charge? One of my consistent surprises about this Government is the top-down nature of many of their announcements, which seem to be the continuation of New Labour's behaviour change programmes rather than the traditional free-market Conservative approach I was expecting. If the Big Society is to flourish, it cannot be led by the Government, or the credit claimed by the politicians. The role of the State should be to support the activities of communities and create the conditions for the activities they want to encourage, and make things easier - through funding, infrastructure, resources, support. Yet it often feels as though by launching this initiative (and particularly in a time of radical cuts) the Government is calling on citizens to work for the State, to help out with public sector projects, deliver public services. So do we, the Big Society, work for the Government to help them achieve their aims, or will public servants become what their name suggests, and support us to do what we think needs doing? And if it's the latter, how do we decide what the State should support?
- Who is accountable? Schools, hospitals, policing and the like are the responsibility of the state: we pay our taxes on the expectation that critical services will be provided to all of us on a fair, equitable and democratically-accountable basis, presumably because we grasp that the wellbeing and prosperity of the people around us is important for our own health, wealth and happiness. Ensuring greater involvement from service users and community groups in public services is fantastic, but it takes time and money to get right, and proper democratic accountability to ensure vulnerable people remain protected. Volunteers also have their own agendas and problems to worry about, particularly in a recession, and the Government still remains ultimately accountable if things go wrong, so are they just creating more problems for themselves later by not taking responsibility now?
- Who pays for volunteer management? Volunteer management is a complicated task and requires a considerable amount of work to get it right: not voluntary work, but full-time work by reliable staff who aren't making their money elsewhere - and this work must be paid for. My experience of running voluntary projects (and I've run a large one, unpaid, for two years now, in Mindapples) is that getting people to volunteer is the easy bit, especially in the internet age; the hard part is finding time to tell them what to do and make their efforts join up properly. I don't need more volunteers, I need money to pay for staff to organise them and scale up our efforts. The Big Society Bank is excellent, but the sums being proposed are tiny compared to previous state funding for the voluntary sector, so what is the plan for sustaining and strengthening our existing voluntary infrastructure in a time of social change and fiscal constraints? Unless we have a plan for how this is going to be paid for, I will be relying on the only people who have any spare cash (or Nectar points) these days: wealthy philanthropists and large corporations. And that isn't the Big Society, that's Victorian England.
- What happened to democracy? The Big Society aims to "take power away from politicians and give it to people". But the State is us. The public sector exists to represent the views of the whole population, serve the interests of the many whilst protecting the interests of the few, and answer to the people for its actions. How have we become so alienated from our State institutions that private, independent organisations seem now to offer more possibilities for putting 'the People' in charge? Democracy and equanimity are difficult and expensive to achieve, and by cutting away these layers we may achieve greater efficiency, but do we leave ourselves vulnerable to increased social injustice, and subservience to the needs of the wealthy and the confident? There are tools for ensuring this of course, democratic organisational structures and community governance models, but when I hear talk of creating "the U.K’s biggest mutual: to which all citizens will be able to belong", it feels like we are trying to rebuild the State in parallel, not because it will be any better, but because we have lost faith in the current system. And replacing it... well, that sounds very expensive indeed.
I believe in the aspirations of the Big Society. I believe that the people of the UK are the state, and the Government serves us and should help us achieve our goals. I believe people are basically good and can be trusted, and that current public service culture disempowers vulnerable people and makes it hard for individuals to contribute to their own lives and communities. I believe that passionate individuals and grassroots organisations outside the Government should step in to solve problems which cannot be tackled by top-down authoritarian solutions, such as community and social care, public health promotion, invigorating communities, guiding the cultural and social development of our children, monitoring the activities and efficacy of the state infrastructures. However, I do not think that this work should be free, nor that paid civil servants can hand over their jobs to volunteers and remain in their lofty positions. And I continue to believe that the running of our state infrastructure is ultimately the job of a democratically-elected body of paid agents acting in the service of the people.
These are just my current questions: I have heard many others, and doubtless others will emerge as we go. The message for some time has been that we are in charge and we must find the answers to these questions. As Steve says, "it is a work in progress". However, if the Prime Minister and other prominent figures are prepared to say the Big Society is a "Good Thing" for Britain, I'm presuming they must have thought these issues through first? If the leaders know the answers, please let them share them with us - after all, they're part of this Big Society thing too. If they don't, then I would question why they are telling us how great this will be when so much remains uncertain. Either way, I believe these questions need to be answered, and that means we need to get on with it together.
The devil, as they say, is in the detail.