Today, the Public Administration Select Committee has published their report examining the role of the Government in enabling the development of the Big Society. The report pretty much sums up what we in local government have been saying for months: the public (and to some extent, officials) do not get it, it is hampered by the massive funding cuts, and critically, we don’t yet know whether civil society is willing to deliver public services.
Before you think that it’s all over, it is important to say why we think this approach to public life matters and why the Big Society won’t (and should not) go away. Firstly, this is a personal priority for David Cameron – he won’t let it go away. He has a personal stake in making it work.
Cameron aside, there is a compelling case for this approach. People don’t like having things done to them. They like having a say and feeling like they can influence what is happening in their own communities. What’s more, communities are also best placed to allocate resources and make decisions on service provision. Why? Because they know what their own needs and priorities are. The notion that ‘government knows best’ is no longer good enough.
More significantly though, the sort of problems that we are now facing as a society – climate change, an ageing society – can’t be tackled by government alone and need the involvement of citizens to find a path for the future. This is even more essential given that public funding for such complex policy issues won’t be increasing.
What has gone wrong so far? Point one. We all know that implementation of the ‘Big Society’ agenda, has, for the most part, been a slow struggle. That is not to say that local authorities and communities aren’t achieving great things – they are – but take-up of the ‘Big Society’ has been patchy. The report makes clear that there is no coherent plan for the Big Society and that the government has been unable to communicate effectively to the public, and arguably local government, what it means in practical terms. The concept has been plagued with confusion, not least because many people still feel that it is a cover for massive public spending cuts.
Point two. Cash. The impact of public spending reductions on the charitable and voluntary sector has been significant. At present, it is not clear that the sector will have the capacity and means to deliver the Big Society. The report goes further and points out that the very existence of some of these groups – the groups who may want to deliver Big Society policies – is at risk. Let’s hope the Big Society Bank will help with this.
Final point. As acknowledged in the PASC report: ‘there is also uncertainty about how many charities in general, and small and local community groups in particular, are willing and able to deliver public services’. LGiU have been arguing for some time that the whole Localism agenda is very supply side driven. Whilst we absolutely welcome the devolution of powers to councils and communities, we also recognise that in order for this to work, there has to be demand within communities to take advantage of the raft of provisions coming their way. When we talk to our council members, we certainly don’t get the impression that people within communities are hammering at town hall doors, eagerly awaiting the implementation of the Localism Act. Indeed, until we can understand how to get communities interested in taking up the provisions, we are, a bit stuck.
And how do we fix this? The report makes two recommendations: to have a single Big Society Minister and to impact assess every Government policy, asking ‘what substantively will this do to build social capital, people power, and social entrepreneurs’.
Somehow, this doesn’t really feel like enough. Will this address confusion over what the Big Society is? How will it tackle the significant funding barriers that are facing our councils and civic society? What will this do to address the fact that people simply don’t seem bothered about the Big Society or Localism? We don’t necessarily have the answers either.
We do think however, that Government can do much more to share practice, ideas, inspiration, and we think the sector can do more to support peers. This is why we have launched the Civil Society Innovation Network, which with Government, is looking at the major challenges facing local government and civil society in taking forward this agenda. The Network brings together key players from across DCLG, Ministers and council leaders and chief executives to share practice within the sector and provide peer support.