Can the Big Society be anything more than BS?

[Originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 28/09/10]

When the Big Society entered mainstream political debate a few short months ago the concept was relatively vague. Many people no doubt grasped that it was something to do with what government was or wasn’t going to do. And what we might be expected to do for ourselves or organise at a neighbourhood level. Beyond that things got rather murky.

The process of elaborating the concept continues, but at a practical level things move on apace. The June budget cuts, and the prospect of worse to come, have triggered many local councils to reflect upon their role as service provider and explore alternatives. The Big Society is the rather fluid concept being invoked in support of preferred solutions.

We are entering a period of profound change. It could be genuinely transformational. There are potential gains to be made, and many of the ideas being aligned with the Big Society – localism and economic democracy, for example –speak directly to long-standing Liberal Democrat concerns. But there are also significant risks to which we should not, in my view, be indifferent.

We can identify different strands to the way the idea of the Big Society is being deployed in practice.

A Big Society discourse is being used to underpin what would appear primarily to be a return to the (over)zealous privatisation of the Thatcher era. Suffolk County Council is clearly channelling the spirit of Nicholas Ridley in its recent advocacy of turning itself into a contract manager. The conjunction of budgetary pressure and the Big Society idea has opened a window of opportunity to breathe new life into long-cherished strategies to pursue a libertarian ideal of the state.

The enabling authority was, as many will recall, part of the discourse of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It rather foundered on the rocks of contracting. On the one side, we had the hazards presented by the complexities, inflexibilities and transaction costs of arms-length contracting. On the other side lay the challenges to transparency, accountability and probity associated with the relational contracting needed to deliver services successfully. Labour’s advocacy of partnership working was an attempt to square this circle.

The issue hasn’t gone away. What’s more if the Big Society is simply about moving services from the public sector to the private or not-for-profit sector then, even if we believe that is desirable in itself, we are not talking about a strategy that will save vast sums of money.

It may be possible to squeeze out some further efficiency gains through this route, but there are likely to be few places with the headroom to reduce costs by 25% or more and provide the same level of frontline services. And further efficiency gains in areas such as social care provision are likely to be achieved only through seeking economies of scale, which moves away from localism. Some voluntary sector providers in fields such as social care are already being squeezed so hard by local authorities – looking to cope with reductions in their own budgets – they are considering whether there is a long term future in some markets. Local authorities have statutory obligations to ensure that social care needs are met. But voluntary and private sector organisations don’t have similar obligations to meet those needs: if the financial terms are so adverse that a quality service cannot be provided and living wages cannot be paid then for organisations with strong values or reputation to protect withdrawing from provision becomes a realistic possibility.

A second strand in thinking is that the Big Society means government ceasing not only to provide services but also ceasing to fund them. What happens then?

The most radical option is for government to simply step away and pass the responsibility back to communities: if a community can self-organise then that is great for its members, but if it lacks the capacity and are unable to provide the services its members need then that is not the government’s problem. Whether such services are provided on the basis of fees or voluntarily, public sector budgets are reduced. If needs are met voluntarily, without money changing hands, then the formal economy will correspondingly shrink. This scenario would imply a need to review significant swathes of legislation to dilute statutory obligations to meet need, and to review more detailed issues such as requirements for provision to meet minimum standards. To some extent this is already happening with the drive to personalisation. A less radical option is for government to launch a further push to a mixed economy of provision with local authorities acting as a provider of last resort and, possibly, regulating standards. But this option is correspondingly more expensive.

The Big Society poses questions for anyone with a concern for social inequality and territorial justice. We know from a range of sources, including the excellent mapping work being done by the ESRC Third Sector Research Centre, that social capital and voluntary sector capacity vary significantly between areas. Existing voluntary effort to supplement public services is distributed unevenly, with socially advantaged areas being better able to self-organise and self-provide. If we move into a world where we are expecting communities to respond more extensively to state-withdrawal by stepping in as substitute service providers then such inequalities will be accentuated.

The typical solution when looking for engagement and the development of community-led services is to lay the groundwork through capacity building. But, despite protestations to the contrary, the current agenda seems to leave little space for this sort of careful, long-term development work. Indeed, the need to save money has been constructed as so dominant that all over the country the rug is already be pulled from under voluntary sector activities and capacity.

And the least transparent part of the Big Society discourse is that it is not, even with the best will in the world and a fair wind behind it, going to maintain levels of service provision following budget cuts of the scale being contemplated. So this is not about doing the same for less. It is about less all round. More transparency on this point, and the hardships it will cause – not just temporarily but permanently- is needed.

These are not intended as arguments against looking to communities to play a greater role in meeting the needs of their members. But they are arguments against building policy on the basis of an ideal of community which is not always encountered in practice, making incautious assumptions that communities will spontaneously be able to step in. And to raise the question of what happens when communities fall short.

As we move in the direction of greater community self-reliance we need to ensure it doesn’t impact most negatively on the weakest members of society. Or is that simply an inequality we are willing to tolerate? In my view, much more detailed and realistic thinking about how things could work locally needs to be done before we rush headlong into changes that disadvantage the vulnerable yet again.

One thing lacking sufficient prominence in the Big Society discussion is a clear articulation of why the state comes to be involved in certain activities in the first place. And consequently what the risks associated with it withdrawing might be. Support localism wholeheartedly? Certainly. Be alive to its limits? Absolutely. Aspects the welfare state, from the origins of the state retirement pension under the Liberal government of 1906-1914 onwards, were progressive precisely because the socialisation of risk allowed for the provision of comprehensive safety nets: provision which had been out of reach for those who could never accumulate sufficient resources individually or locally to self-insure against systemic or catastrophic risk. The recent health care reform debates in the US illustrate what is at stake. Current discussions on policy towards carers in the UK demonstrate the inequities of expecting families to cope with adverse life events without very much broader structures of social support.

As the New Victorians of the Conservative party seek to catapult the country back to a more hostile era in which, in the name of self-reliance, the vulnerable are expected increasingly to fend for themselves, we would do well to remember the good that the state can achieve – without for one minute ceasing to be concerned about its weaknesses.

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