Big Society - the view from the frontline
This week we held the first of a series of seminars for our members to discuss the government's plans, the spending cuts and, in particular, the Big Society programme. The discussion, among people from frontline community based groups, was fascinating and, as you would expect, everyone was understandably nervous about the impact of the cuts. However, there was an overwhelming desire to want to believe in the Big Society vision and a belief that there was considerable potential for it to have a radically transformative effect.
Whilst the vision for the Big Society has left some scratching their heads and trying to work out precisely what it means, the feeling was that there is something in there which is attractive and welcome. Questions remain over how the proposed range of activities (many of which are still embryonic in their detail) will stack up to deliver the ambitious vision. Perhaps some of the aims need to be taken with a pinch of salt - is it realistic to believe every single adult will be a member of a community group? Nonetheless, we in the voluntary and community sector know better than most how important it is to aim for the sky! And it's hard to suggest the Big Society rhetoric lacks ambition.
There are, as was recognised, considerable risks attached to the Big Society. Most obvious is the lurking suspicion that community action is a cynical attempt to fill gaps in public services as public spending is cut and the activities of the state are ‘rolled back'. There was also a feeling that there was a small window of opportunity to influence and shape how the Big Society is delivered in practice - the fact that so many aspects of it are still to be defined does create opportunity, but it also requires us to quickly get our heads round a new way of working. The previous government had a tendency to become quite inward looking when it came to policy formation (developing plans and then announcing them as more or less a ‘fait accompli'), meaning only the favoured voices were afforded access and influence. If the new government's stated ambition to involve people more meaningfully in developing ideas and plans is genuine, we need to change our mindset as much as those in the public sector do to respond. It would be foolish to write off their intention without giving it a go first.
Another major risk with Big Society, is that the opportunities afforded communities to transform public services actually exacerbate inequality, by diverting resources away from poor communities where they are needed most. The impact of affluent communities taking over public services (and receiving the funds to do so) could leave local authorities struggling to plan for, and resource, services in more deprived areas. Big Society is based on achieving a redistribution of power, but we need to ensure the approach does not backfire and actually reinforce power inequalities.
People, quite rightly, recognised that we need to move quickly to contribute to the emerging plans for the Big Society. The community sector has much to contribute and to gain from the Big Society, but it's essential that we do not miss the boat if the potential of the programme is to be realised.