Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Big Society

Last week I spoke at the ACEVO-Action Planning Funding Readshow in Brimingham, pre-empting Cameron's spech yesterday. This is what I said:

Thank you David [Senior from Action Planning, not to be confused with Cameron!] for that very kind introduction. Our partnership with Action Planning means a great deal to us and I am really pleased to be here today in this great venue.

We’ve got a great line up here this morning with the opportunity to hear straight from the horses mouth with officials across government able to explain how policy is developing across departments. My job is to set a little of the context, to explore what Big Society may mean and how it will affect our roles in running charities.

It’s now three months since the election and a result which I don’t think many of us would have predicted. It’s been a whirlwind period for all of us as we try to identify what is at the heart of the new government’s vision, and how new policies will affect us and the work we do.

As the dust has begun to settle it is clear that there are some important narratives which are coming to the fore, and which will dominate policy making across government.

The first of these big narratives is of course The Big Society. While this agenda certainly does need some more development there is a great deal of welcome news for the sector in the announcements which have been made.

I think that many of the principles for which we have been fighting for over many years seem now to be the starting point for the Coalition’s interaction with the sector. Government is talking with great enthusiasm about the importance of vibrant civil life and the role of the third sector in delivering reformed public services.

The likes of David Cameron and Francis Maude are talking about the need for a “smart, strategic state” to make the Big Society possible, avoiding simple state retrenchment and recognizing that the detail of the commissioning process, with a level playing field for the third sector, is what matters.

Words are warm elsewhere too with figures as diverse as Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling and HM the Queen making it explicitly clear that the third sector is central to the new government’s vision.

This is without doubt good news. Our sector’s dialogue with the new government starts from a strong position. We don’t need to work at getting our foot in the door, but rather we should be able to get stuck in to the details about making the relationship work.

The Big Society narrative does however I think present some questions for us here in this room, what you might call the organized part of civil society.

Firstly, as I’ve hinted at, there is still a lack of clarity over what exactly it means. Reports from the election campaign suggested that did not go down well on the doorstep as it failed to make much practical sense to ordinary voters.

It is unclear the extent to which this is an agenda about the third sector and supporting the work of third sector organisations, or a more ethereal idea of stimulating civic action and engagement. On the one hand we have very clear, concrete and very welcome initiatives in the offing such as the Big Society Bank, but on the other hand many of the key individuals who have been at the heart of the development of the government’s vision for the Big Society have tended not been established third sector leaders.

A look at the Big Society website, jointly run by Lord Wei the advisor to the new government on the Big Society agenda, illustrates some of this. The blogs, articles and videos on the site very colorfully illustrate examples of what is Big Society. However, they do not really provide much analysis of how to turn these examples into a broader policy agenda, or indeed how the levers of government can turn this wide scale reality.

Now this lack of clarity is also a significant opportunity for us all here, as it is our collective role to work with government to better define Big Society. ACEVO has been arguing since the election that the rather romantic language used to articulate Big Society needs grounding in the reality of the modern third sector. Stephen Bubb gave a lecture back in May which argued that to achieve the vision of the Big Society we need not just civic action but organized civic action and that means a professional third sector which is well capitalized and business-like.

The second challenge which government faces with implementing the Big Society is a challenge which it will also face in many other areas, which is how to swing parliament and the juggernaut of central government behind it.

The Coalition’s majority is much smaller than those which have been enjoyed by the recent Labour governments, and even then government wasn’t always able to do what it wanted. Parliament will therefore have a stronger role; and the political reform agenda is set to give it a stronger role still. Backbenchers will matter and there is little telling at this stage whether or not the Big Society matters to them.

Ministers and senior officials may “get” the role which the sector can play, but it will mean lots of doing things differently, lots of new structures and systems, and the taking of lots of chances – some of which will of course fail. Convincing the treasury mandarin or the local authority chief executive of the need to take these chances will require sustained policy direction and real political bravery from central government. It will also require a sector better able to demonstrate its impact and make its own case.

So Big Society presents definite opportunities for the sector, and we all have some work to do in developing it further. But there is of course a cloud over all of this.

On the last page of the Coalition agreement, after thirty odd pages of commitments, it says in large letters in the middle of the page: “The Deficit reduction programme takes precedence over any of the other measures in this agreement”.

Spending cuts are the biggest game in town and this is of course the second big narrative of the Ccoalition. This year we have seen the beginning of the cuts, and already we have seen an impact on the work of the third sector with the end of programmes such as the Future Jobs Fund. The budget made clear the enormity of the challenge ahead: an average of 25% cuts in departmental spending over the course of the parliament, £11bn lopped from the welfare bill and tax rises of which many (such as the rise in VAT) will hit the sector and those we serve hard. The Autumn’s spending review will be all important as each department submits its proposals for the 2011-14 period.

Now, there is no doubt that public services need reforming in many areas, and there is the potential for a bigger role for the third sector to deliver those services which are preventative and holistic, and keep people out of the most expensive government institutions like hospitals and prisons. We had a conference with our Health and Social care members yesterday and there was a real buzz in the room about the opportunities for a significant increase in the role of the sector in health and social care. But even optimists like us at ACEVO would see it a little far fetched to believe that the sector isn’t going to be hit hard by these cuts.

When we look back at the last decade or so we have seen a very significant expansion of the third sector. Now while there has been some very favourable specific policies towards the sector in terms of capacity building and capitalization, the real change for us has not been down to these sector specific policies, but rather down to the public service reform agenda, the significant growth in the public services industry and the increase in contestability with more opportunity for third sector organizations to play a role in providing those services. Capacity building didn’t grow the sector on its own. Public service reform did.

In this light we might reflect that however well intentioned the policies around the big society are, and however significant the opportunities for the will be to transform the way services are delivered, the reality is that the savage cuts which we will see across the board are likely to have more significant impact in the short and medium term on what it feels like to run a charity.

We don’t yet know exactly what Big Society means in terms of our day to day jobs, but we do know what losing funding would mean. Big Society could be a very interesting and coherent political philosophy, but we may not feel that this is the time for philosophizing.

Our focus at ACEVO is to support the sector’s leaders through spending cuts, with guidance and advice on collaboration and partnerships, on demonstrating impact, and on making those tough decisions which senior managers will have to take. We have recently launched cutswatch.org.uk to provide a first port of call for sector leaders and I’d commend it to you.

So to conclude David, two key narratives from the new government will significantly impact on the sector, Big Society and spending cuts. Both present opportunities and challenges, but one still needs a good deal more explaining. We all have a big role in shaping the debate about what the big society means, but until you’re clear on how it will impact on your day to day role, my advice would be to focus on the spending review, think about income diversity, investigate collaboration and demonstrate your impact; because the challenge of spending cuts is a very real one.

I look forward to hearing the perspectives to colleagues here from government and look forward to the discussion.

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