This article is part of a special series on Big Society, also including Turning Point's Lord Adebowale, The Young Foundation's Francis Davis, Alex Oliver of The Futures Company and The Spectator's Freddy Gray.
Last month, in Spain, the grandmothers went on strike. I found this out during a discussion with a group of councils in Corby, in Northamptonshire. The atmosphere was engaged, if tense. The councils’ star chamber was to take place that afternoon; in it they would map out the effect of the imminent cuts on the services they deliver. One gentleman in particular, whose expertise was in social care, was impassioned. “We have to understand what’s going on here!” he shouted at one point. “Those grandmothers crippled their public services!”
Understanding why this happened is, of course, key to the Big Society approach: one that seeks to recognise and support the hidden value of relationships in our communities and work with the grain of them. By this rubric, Big Society does not begin and end with the outsourcing of huge swathes of services to organisations constituted as voluntary. That may be beneficial – we all like plurality of supply, choice and the long-term gains that come from civil society service delivery – but it is broader, a lot broader, than that.
And so government policy will have to be broader too. Rather than focussing on specific service needs, the policy response initially becomes more consultative, as they try and understand the politically acceptable limits of state action and the possibilities of private and civic action (the phase we are currently at). Then it becomes enabling: to create structures that empower a wider variety of groups, large and small, to deliver services. To open up supply chains and to use innovations such as cloud technology to make tendering processes simpler, more efficient and more transparent. The money will come from blended value instruments that multiply government interventions. Over the course of a generation, the idea will be to use the tools and technology at our disposal to create the support structures that make us all community custodians, public servants, whatever you want to call it.
This has all been articulated practically through hefty business plans for the Cabinet Office and other departments. Good stuff, but plans are, after all, just that. Generational shifts and master plans are all very well, but we need to know about the here and now. We need to know how this transition period – for all shifts and all cuts require transitions – will be managed and how those first transition structures will be put in place. The £100m transition fund, for example, an obeisance to this, was delivered through the Big Lottery Fund, and so for all its good felt very new Labour, and very un-Big Society like. Is ‘civic infrastructure’ the huge pot hole in the Big Society story? We need, I think, a credible coalition plan to prove that this is not the case. We don’t have one. Yet.
Apropos: I recently wrote an article for Conservative Home on how we might get councils to work better with voluntary organisations. The response was interesting. From many contributors, there appeared to be a certain suspicion of structures that seek to enable civic action in our streets. It felt like ‘planning’, which to many who care about civil society, is anathema. From councillors, on the other hand, there was acceptance and even excitement. We shall see who is right. What is certainly true is that the coalition will have to do more than offer a few Macguffins to make these ideas work. Without a clearly articulated structure of support, training and activism, and a more organised set of implementation principles, they might well, I fear, find themselves with even greater problems than striking grandmothers.
Asheem Singh is a former Senior Adviser to the Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd