The resignation of Nat Wei yesterday marks the end of an era of the “Big Society”, but it would be a grave mistake for the sector if we let it die.
New governments have a habit of thinking that they must reinvent the world, and only those who were close to them in the humble days before power can possibly help. For David Cameron and his close friends, this reinvention came under the banner of Big Society, an amorphous and ill-defined concept which has left many both inside his party and within the third sector cold and confused.
Part of the reason why sector leaders have been left cold and confused is down to an inherent paradox in way Big Society as a policy has been developed. For a policy which is all about empowerment and bottom-up decision making, the intellectual framework has been developed in a top-down way, by a group of people that most third sector leaders had never heard of. This group has included Nat Wei, who resigned yeaterday. His ideas have been of interest, but have never been sufficiently policy focused or practical and have never inspired the sector. As a mouthpiece for the agenda he has been a distraction.
So in spite of thinking that Big Society is broadly a good thing (as 64% of ACEVO members agree that it is), third sector leaders don’t believe that the government understands the sector (only 8% agree) or values the sector (25% agree). There has therefore been significant scepticism, or even toxicity surrounding the Big Society brand. This has been a big problem when there are so many important policy agendas for the sector bound up within it (such as giving, public service reform, social investment and volunteering).
This is now set to change. With the departure of Nat Wei, government will now need to listen to those who have real experience, knowledge and networks across the third sector. The Commission on Big Society, which ACEVO hosted and facilitated, has produced the best and most coherent set of policies which both support the clear articulation of what Big Society is about, and outlines real practical policy initiatives which can help to make it happen. The focus being placed on the work of the OCS strategic partners around implementing and measuring aspects of the Big Society will help to drive the agenda forwards too.
It is striking then that the momentum from within the sector to define Big Society in our terms and to drive that agenda forwards is peaking at a time when the Government’s enthusiasm for the brand Big Society seems to be waning. The Cabinet’s progress report after one year in office makes no mention of the phrase. Number 10's poor handling of the anniversary of Big Society this Monday has been derided by the media as just another re-launch, further devaluing the brand. The PM failed to articulate the progress which the government has made on the agenda. Instead he yet again talked about it in brand and all-encompassing terms, and therefore also detracted from the firm commitments in the giving white paper launched on the same day.
So we’ve become the life support for Big Society, and that is as it should be. This is an agenda of the third sector and it is right that we lead the debate. However it is impetrate that we don’t let it die because the current policy alternatives would be much worse for the sector and for our beneficiaries.
If the Tory party abandon Big Society then there would be very little to check the fervour of deficit reduction, resulting in less focus on involving the third sector in public service reform but instead pushing wide-scale privatisation and an expectation that philanthropy will step-in as the state withdraws. Similarly if Big Society disappears as an agenda then the dinosaurs on the left of the Labour Party will have free reign to promote statist solutions. Either of these would be a big step back for our sector.
All this was foreseeable. President Bush Jnr made the same mistakes when he took over in 2001, ignoring the established non profit players and talking only to his mates, mainly from within faith communities. However after a year of lots of talking and no progress he realised that to deliver on his social policies he needed the non profit sector as a partner.
We now must be those agents of delivery in partnership with government to realise the best of the Big Society. There is too much at stake for us to let allow the government’s incompetence in explaining and promoting Big Society be an excuse for its demise.