The news that Liverpool is pulling out of a Big Society pilot project, blaming cuts and central government inaction, was met with a certain amount of grim satisfaction yesterday. It seemed like vindication for those who’ve been arguing that the Big Soc is incompatible with the cuts affecting the voluntary sector. The announcement that Big Society head honcho, Nat Wei is cutting down on his voluntary hours because he needs time to earn a living got a similar response. People are lining up to say “I told you so” about the failure of the Big Society (look, I can do it too) without being able to offer an alternative vision of how to provide public services at a time of swingeing cuts (no, I haven’t got one either).
The Big Soc has always been hampered by its supporters’ inability to explain how it would actually work. The best summary I’ve heard of the problems with the BS was provided by Anna Coote from NEF at an RSA event at which the audience lined up to condemn the flakiness of the idea – and, if memory serves, the BS defender talked about the importance of people talking to each other on buses. In the absence of a convincing narrative about how the Big Soc would work in real communities with serious problems, it’s been too easy for its opponents to paint it as a fig leaf for cuts. (As one respondent to a Third Sector/LGC survey of attitudes to the BS said “It might work in Ambridge, but not in the real world”)
So, we’re all agreed. It was a difficult idea raising lots of practical problems, and it’s not going down well. Rather than carping, though, I’m intrigued by what happens next. Given that the Tories aren’t going to change their minds and release more funds to support services, how are they to be delivered in future? There’s obviously a role for public, private and third sectors to work together – how is that to be done? Does it matter if it’s done differently in different locations (the chaos that Nicholas Boles said he would welcome in place of central planning)? Can a practical structure now be hung onto the smaller government/bigger communities/locally driven idea, which many people find appealing when it’s explained properly. What’s the transition plan? If the objective is to get from central planning/central funding to locally provided, tailored services, how do we get from A to B without decimating services en route? Is the government completely the wrong institution to be driving this at all (a point made in CIPRtv’s examination of communications issues around the Big Society)? And (another opportunity for me to say I told you so), how come the comms around this central plank of government policy has been handled so very badly that almost no-one seems to understand what the Big Society is all about?