Back home after a very interesting and busy Tory conference, with a whole host of impressions. There were a great many ACEVO members there; all working hard to get a feel for the mood and in particular get a sense of where the Big Society narrative is going.
On that latter point I fear that they will have left disappointed. In spite of roughly half of all the fringes being badged Big Society in one way or another, the difficulties in getting a handle on the policy implications remain.
Lord Wei was a big draw. He spoke at two of our fringe events, as well as the Respublica Big Society reception on the Sunday Night. The audience at each were hanging off his every word, often furiously scribbling down what was being said (some were even recording it). Lord Wei spoke about the Big Society as being a society in which “none of us feel small”. He frequently drew on international comparisons apparently to prove that this is now a global trend. His vocabulary was riddled with jargon, such as his debate about the benefits of “bridging and bonding social capital”. He extolled the gains that there could be if only we all formed more coherent groups – and at one point said that something as simple as learning each other’s names could save the state £billions.
It’s crude to take Lord Wei’s comments out of context. His job is to be the muse and when you listen to him speak you kind of know what he’s getting at. But the fact is that his audience perfectly legitimately want to know what this means in terms of how they do their job differently, what it means in terms of policy, and in my personal view in this particular regard he appeared out of his depth.
Lord Wei’s answer to what it all means, an answer also given by Nick Hurd, is that it’s not government’s job to define it. That’s old thinking. Big Society means devolution and localism, groups and communities taking control. We decide what it means. We make it happen. “Set forth and build the Big Society.”
There is of course some logic to that. If Big Society is simply a political philosophy then this is where we are left. The problem is that there is lots of evidence that government is not actually taking that approach, and therefore it is not a satisfactory answer for a number of important reasons.
Firstly government has been seeking to tie all sorts of policy announcements to the Big Society since it came into office. We have seen the announcements about the four pilot areas where local communities will be given extra support in building big society projects. We have the Big Society bank in the offing. And we have the work of the Big Society network, a new body which, as widely reported this week, is in danger of alienating the established third sector. Far from stepping back and letting society get on with making itself Big, the policy fragments which we do have paint a rather rigid picture of what sort of projects constitute Big Society.
Claire Cox from the institute of ideas spoke at our joint fringe with Policy Exchange on Monday night and gave a highly amusing description of Big Society as sanitised, enforced activism where the civil service decide what counts. We’re left with a feeling that the Big Society can be what you make it, as long as the powers that be agree.
There is an broader link here to the Tories views on campaigning. A colleague working the stand for a big national charity this week reported a lot of hostility from party members that they were there to advocate and campaign rather than fundraise. “We don’t give to charity for you to spend the money on campaigning.” A few indiscrete remarks from people close to the centre of Government who should know better have suggested that ACEVO has been foolish to speak out on projects like the National Citizen Service with which we have disagreed. We of course know Oliver Letwin’s position on this from his remarks to NCVO last year. The sector must be careful to protect its campaigning in face of this hostility and there is a clear contradiction between the ideal of Big Society and government not wanting to hear hostile messages.
The second reason why the laissez-faire argument isn’t satisfactory concerns the government’s approach to public service reform. Amongst the less ethereal parts of the Big Society narrative are the very welcome pronouncements about pushing ahead with market based reforms in public services with a clear commitment that the third sector must be able to play a significant role in those markets. The messages from government about removing barriers to level playing fields, reforming commissioning to focus on outcomes, removing bureaucracy, and accessing capital show a good understanding of the challenges which third sector providers face. But getting these market structures right requires some very serious and very specific policy direction from government. Lack of clarity about what and how government wants to buy would be disastrous.
Again in reality, and quite rightly, government is not leaving all this up to chance. There are some important over-riding messages about needing to focus on outcomes and payment by results in the provision of services and different departments across government are bringing about significant changes to the market structures of services. The government understands that good public service markets cannot be spontaneously created from the grass roots.
A third reason concerns the fact that the most radical change which the government is seeking to bring about is coming from ministers who are showing real political bravery and leadership.
I was struck across many of the government speakers on the fringes by how many ministers spoke like they were still in opposition. Asking for ideas and input. Weighing up arguments on both sides and seeking to come to a dispassionate judgement. The idea that Big Society can just be left to happen rather fits into this mould. However, the likes of Iain Duncan Smith and Andrew Lansley (who in my view was the best speaker on the fringe) have shown quite the opposite qualities, demonstrating real boldness in pushing trough their reform agendas. They understand that they have responsibilities to live up to and that their decisions have consequences, and in so doing leave those who need to understand those areas of policy which a clear idea about the direction of travel.
These bold policy pronouncements where they exist, as well as contradicting the idea that Big Society shouldn’t be defined by government, do also present third sector leaders with further confusions. If one looks at the nature of the these reforms to public service markets there is a fundamental inconsistency in how they are being applied. As Sonia Sodha from Demos argued at our joint fringe, in some public service markets we are seeing consolidation and in others a fragmentation. Welfare to work, for example, is moving to yet bigger regional prime contracts for delivery, with a complex supply chain below. The NHS on the other hand, is moving in exactly the opposite direction, with commissioning being devolved to GPs. This inconsistency will make the joining up of areas of public services, vital if the third sector’s role really does mean doing things differently in a way which can reduce spending on those services, much more difficult.
The point is this: facilitating the Big Society requires a coherent policy framework which all the key actors can understand. I suspect that third sector leaders have left Tory conference none the wiser about the Big Society as a concept. We have no reason to buy the argument that defining the Big Society should be left up to us because government has not in fact been leaving it up to us and nor should it. We need to know the rules of the game in which we are being asked to play. Those working with Lord Wei need to understand that reasonable demand and give the sector some answers, if indeed there are any.