You have to admire David Cameron’s tenacity in the face of widespread indifference and incomprehension. On Monday he sought to relaunch his idea of the Big Society for the third time. The results of yesterday’s YouGov survey were then reported over at Liberal Conspiracy. This indicated that 62% of respondents felt they understood the Big Society “not very, or not at all, well”; a third said the Big Society sounded like a bad idea; 73% said they thought it wouldn’t actually work; and 59% thought it was “mostly hot air” rather than a “real vision”.
Reading Cameron’s speech (available here) suggests several things.
First, the idea of the Big Society still contains within it several strands of thinking that are, at the very least, not obviously linked. The concept therefore does not appear very coherent. At the worst, the strands of thinking are incompatible. From this perspective, the concept is incoherent.
Second, it is clear that, as far as Cameron is concerned, the concept refers to a seismic change in the nature of society. There is an element of the concept – more choice in public services – which continues to promote the mixed economy of provision and ‘citizen as consumer’ line that has dominated policy for two decades. That’s not new. And it is in tension with the rest of the argument. Cameron is seeking more control of services by local people rather than local government; reciprocity, public-spiritedness and voluntarism instead of passive dependence upon the state; private philanthropy in place of mandatory taxation to fund services.
Of course, it is precisely the nature of the problem Cameron thinks society is afflicted with that stands in the way of people understanding what he is talking about. Catch-22
It goes without saying that there is already a significant amount of voluntary activity and philanthropy in the UK. So all the elements of this picture are familiar. But it clearly isn’t enough for Cameron. Otherwise he wouldn’t be making such a song and dance about the Big Society.
One can only conclude that this is about seeking a fundamental shift in our understanding of how society is and should be ordered, and a shift decisively away from the state as the key mechanism by which we seek to meet the needs of society. The voluntary sector becomes genuinely ‘voluntary’ rather than state subsidized. Safety nets would be altogether more threadbare and assistance all the more precarious. In sum, Cameron wants Britain to be more like America. If you’re positive about that you’d think small-town America, volunteer fire departments, communities coming together for barn raising and the like. If you’re negative about it you’d raise the spectre of a dystopian metropolis of alienation, private affluence and public squalor.
Third, this concept is never going to be made to fly on the basis of Prime ministerial speeches. They are not the right vehicle for making the case. They are geared to the sound bite and the headline. They are not geared to laying out a coherent vision for a completely different society. They are also woefully short on the detail of plausible mechanisms by which such a social upheaval might be brought about, if one considered this desirable. The Big Society is never going to be brought about by exhortation alone. The sorts of initiatives that have been identified so far are modest in scale, relative the size of the task.
There some plausible ideas in the Giving White Paper, also launched on Monday. But they are modest. And the document raises some questions. The key tension, from my perspective, is around the role of incentives in generating and sustaining increased giving of time and money. Clearly with things like Giftaid there are already incentives to give. But the White Paper is putting forward a range of novel incentive schemes to try to encourage people to give. It’s got the finger prints of the Cabinet Office Nudge Unit all over it. I’m not sure that in the age of internet banking and texting your donation, practical difficulty is the main barrier to financial giving. And it is an unanswered question as to whether activity that is motivated by external incentives can be translated into genuinely pro-social intrinsically-motivated behaviour. That is, is it possible that incentives are necessary to get things going but when social norms of ‘giving’ are established the incentives become unnecessary? You cease to do something for what’s in it for you and you continue to do it for the benefit it delivers to others. Or must an incentivised activity remain incentivised otherwise it ceases? We don’t really know.
It seems unlikely that Big Society 4.0 is going to be any more successful than its predecessors in embedding the idea in the public consciousness. Does that matter, if initiatives inspired by it are being rolled out and impacting upon society? Might we arrive at Cameron’s Big Society even before anyone has been able to articulate effectively what it is? How would we know?
All I’m saying is that I’m not betting against Big Society 5.0 being released some time soon.