From big idea to Big Society

August 5, 2010 at 8:39 am 3 comments

by Matthew Horne

David Cameron has launched the Big Society with a great fanfare. The responses have been varied: this is the single most compelling big idea that the government have; this is cover for the most dramatic cuts in spending anyone can remember; it’s a fad or a gimmick that will fizzle out in a couple of years, just like the third way, the big conversation, personalisation, or countless other recent ‘big ideas’.

So far, the plan has half a dozen meaty policies: the Big Society Bank will provide the capital, a programme of community action projects will get young people involved, a network of trained community organisers will make things happen in every neighbourhood, and four local authorities are going to be the pioneers – telling Government what needs to change.

However, these are early days for the Government, and it is yet to work out how it can realise the full potential of the Big Society agenda, and it has probably underestimated how radical the consequences could be for the delivery of public services and for current government policy.

There are three reasons why the current approach is insufficiently radical:

Firstly, the government has chosen to ask 4 localities: Liverpool, Cumbria, Windsor & Maidenhead and Sutton to be the pioneers without significantly altering the constraints and bureaucratic structures under which they are currently operating. Like everywhere else they will be subject to the same regulations and duties, have the same powers, inspection frameworks, and funding regimes and will still have to navigate the nightmarish structures of local councils, learning and skills councils, police authorities, primary care trust, children’s trusts, local strategic partnerships and so on. There is a risk that some of the wonderful projects in each locality will not be translated into the radical changes to the systems of local public services that are so desperately needed if we are to make the Big Society a reality. Redrawing the line between citizen and government and front line staff and government requires more than a collection of community action projects.

Secondly, generating lots of examples and case studies of the Big Society in action is not a sufficient mechanism for achieving large scale change. Our recent work on Radical Efficiency looked at 10 case studies of public services that both reduced costs and improved outcomes. However, in the report we do not argue that Government should adopt and roll out these case studies, quite the opposite. We argue that it is the models, tools, and processes included in the report that are transferable to public services in the UK, not the solutions themselves. Putting the right tools, materials and processes in the hands of the local people is the surest way of making the Big Society real in every neighbourhood.

Innovation Unit have recently accompanied some of the UKs top 200 civil servants on a series of study visits to innovative projects that promote the big society in poor neighbourhoods. We have seen some fantastic work at Sunlight Development Trust in Kent, Bromley by Bow Centre  in East London, the Stronger Together project in Warrington and many great projects in Liverpool and Bellingham. The challenge for government officials is to learn from these examples and re-design systems of public services so that innovations such as these become much more common place, and do not remain beacons of remarkable, isolated practice but are diffused at scale throughout the country.

Finally, the current plans for the Big Society are strangely ‘institution free’ – there is no real sense of what are the anchor stone institutions that will make the Big Society a lasting and sustainable reality. There is much talk of ‘free schools’ as a flagship policy of the Big Society. Are all schools then to become community anchor organisations? If so then someone should tell the Department for Education who are fast trying to get schools to drop community activities, which are seen as a distraction from their core business –raising standards of attainment. Can the church and other faith groups play this role? Development trusts and community settlements are already long established.

Innovation Unit is working with local communities and local service providers to create new institutions and new forms of governance which give local people a much stronger say over local services, and what happens in their community. Co-operative models ensure that different parts of the community have their own stake and ownership of the services and assets in their local area. Staff, residents, service users, the local council can all own a share in an organisation that exists to benefit everyone in a locality. We supported the creation of the first cooperative school trust in which students, parents, staff, school leaders and local residents all own a stake. We are developing a governance model for a local community to control a local school, library, social housing, business space and one stop shop all now found on one site. One of the biggest success stories has been the Goodwin Development Trust in Hull which has grown a large social enterprise employing 100s of local people while maintaining its mutual structure – the board are all elected by the residents on the local estate.

These organisations are about mass membership –open to everyone. They are not dominated or controlled by paid professionals, they are not tied up by public sector bureaucracy, and importantly they are not siloed. They are not just about health, or housing, or schooling but the wellbeing and strength of the whole community: young and old; rich and poor.

The Big Society is a compelling vision and is attracting lots of energy and interest among policy makers and innovators keen to put flesh on the bones. Opportunities for a radical shake up of the way local public services tend to happen early in a government’s life and before the going gets tough (and before opposition gets organised). Lets hope this government can make the most of it.

Entry filed under: Education & Children's Services, Government Departments, Local Authorities, Public Services, Radical Efficiency, Schools & Multi-School Trusts, Social Innnovation, Trusts & Foundations.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Matt Griffiths, ACEVO. ACEVO said: The vision that is Big Society reports Innovation Unit […]

  • 2. Julian Dobson  |  August 7, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    Some interesting points here. A lot of people might take issue with the statement about Big Society being a ‘compelling idea’, but it’s a useful label for a range of discussions about the role of civil society and public services.

    I think your first and second points are particularly important. There needs to be an acknowledgement that Big Society is already here, and needs the freedom and support to flourish; and a recognition from central and local government that the way they are implementing spending cuts is, in many respects, defeating that hope.

    That said, there are opportunities that must be seized. You might be interested in linking with the Big Society in the North forum which is starting to explore some of these tensions and see what can be done to build bridges between civil society and government.

  • 3. Juliet  |  August 24, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    I think it’s great to see David Cameron actually putting his mind to a problem and coming up with an innovative solution. Yes, it may be a risk and there’s no way that we can guarantee that it will work but then the same could be said for BIG ideas of the past like the Internet, the aeroplane and the world being round.

    By the way, I’m loving the Blog – there aren’t enough true ideas people in this world. However, I did find this, which you might be interested in: – it’s a pretty good way of getting people talking about genuine innovation and there’s a bottle of champagne in it for the originator of the best idea!


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