England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Small is Beautiful


According to today’s Times, David Cameron’s advisors now favour a ‘small is beautiful’ approach to policy making. Rachel Sylvester, believes they are downplaying the phrase ‘Big Society.’ It is depressing, both that this public relations spin is newsworthy, and that these two concepts; the ‘Big Society’ and ‘small is beautiful’, are thought to differ.

The Big Society should be about nurturing Edmund Burke’s small platoons. The LGiU showed how councils could do this in our July 2010 report Small is Beautiful (hat tip E.F. Schumacher).

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We urged local authorities to create venture capital style funds, out of existing resources, to fund small scale initiatives. Councils would provide loans (capped at £50,000) for a short period of time (three years) to council employees with small scale ideas designed to improve public service delivery. At the end of this period projects would need to demonstrate cost savings achieved for council and government budgets significantly in excess of the loan plus interest to continue to receive council funding. If profitable they could opt to become commercial enterprises and begin to repay the loan with interest. If the projects had failed they would be cancelled. Loan repayments and cost savings would be credited to the fund, minus losses, to provide capital for fresh loans.

We recommended that these funds should be administered by a board which contained the council leader and chief executive (among qualified fund management personnel). This would ensure political support and democratic accountability and bureaucratic support. It would link council workers career progression with successful participation in this initiative. Our policy recommendations were informed by analysis of around two hundred projects submitted by local councils and in-depth research into ten featured projects.

Our model was an attempt to surpass the barriers to innovation in local government. It is difficult to obtain funding, funding is matched to compliance procedures which sap creativity and career progression is often based on not being associated with failure rather than innovative success. Many of our chosen innovators had external work experience and applied their old knowledge in a new setting. Scarce resources were changing this dynamic in a positive way. Employees in discretionary services were encouraged to innovate because funds were tight. People lower down the career ladder needed to demonstrate the value they provided. Given these services were not statutory councils could choose to provide them in the way they wished. Our model created a structure within the council, but not of the council, to allow public servants to rethink how they provide services.

We want better public services and funds are scarce. Whether we call it ‘small is beautiful’ or the ‘big society’ policymakers need to encourage small scale innovation. Don’t be so scared of failure – you bog innovators down in process based activities and lose sight of the desired outcomes. Don’t increase funding for failing projects fearful that failure might be recognised. Don’t develop big vision approaches that require the construction of enterprises which are too big to fail.

Follow the LGiU vision; create a structure that allows small scale innovation with public accountability. Reward success but recognise that allowing people to experiment means some will fail. This is a necessary price to pay for progress. This is what the Big Society should mean but will it clear the public relations test – possibly not, we better rebrand it.

For more information about Small is Beautiful, please contact report author Glyn Gaskarth on glyn.gaskarth@lgiu.org.