Sunday, 21 November 2010

Why on earth to we think bureaucrats will ever understand Big Society?

A great deal of cynicism and vast acres of misinformation accompanies the idea of the ‘Big Society’. Here’s the Guardian:

Is it time to say goodbye to the "big society"? After just a few months, it is clear the idea is in serious trouble. This isn't because we haven't tried. At first, there was a big society boom in the civil service. An entire industry emerged as public and private sector providers competed to sell places on big society seminars, training courses and courses to train people to run courses. Big society position papers shuffled across Whitehall and all departments were asked to write narratives with details of policies that most exemplified the big society.

Despite all this work, we have hit a brick wall. In short, the idea won't work as not enough people will want to make it happen in the years ahead. Government is retreating into a laissez-faire state and telling people to do things for themselves, but won't be providing the staff or the money to help them make the transition. People will soon be earning less money, working more hours (to keep their jobs or earn more money) with fewer services and less support.

For me this narrative – of a vast state bureaucracy failing entirely to understand something – is precisely what I would expect. All those great brains, the well remunerated consultants, self-important pundits and training providers – they’re not part of the Big Society. They are the problem. Of course they don’t “get” the Big Society – it’s not in their personal or collective interests to do so - they are in charge of the castle.

What these bureaucrats do not understand is that the Big Society is not something that can be created by fiat. There is no link between the Big Society and the writing of policy papers, the conducting of conferences or the holding of meetings in well-padded offices on Whitehall. None whatsoever. In fact the Big Society is the very antithesis of these activities – which is why civil servants wish to kill it.

Big Society is about Government not being in control. It’s about bureaucrats not being able to guide and direct. It’s about a world without the besuited, clipboard-wielding jobsworth. It’s about groups of people getting on with doing something they want to do – not waiting cap in hand for the “funding streams” to pay over the money. It’s about volunteers – about doing something because you think you’d like to rather than because you’re paid by some bureaucratic system to do it.

OK, so some of the stuff on the Big Society is a bit up itself (at least rhetorically) but the real problem is that state control – directly through regulation or indirectly through control of funding – has bred out of us the idea that we can actually get something done without government. The agents that made for a Big Society in times past – the co-ops and mutuals, charities large and small, schools and churches – have been corrupted, bedazzled by the sight of all that government cash. Other people’s money to lavish on your pet projects – what could be better!

We face a choice. We can continue to live in a world when rules and regulations are so complicated that the resulting decisions are, to all intents and purposes, arbitrary. Or we can take control of our communities – of our lives, of or families – away from the Government. Away from the dictats of bureaucratic commissars. Away from the big business agents of those bureaucrats.

The Big Society is about making the right choice. It is about us not them. It is about taking a big step towards being free again.



Demetrius said...

Alas, nobody really knows what they are doing or often why. The mess is so great that there are no right decisions only less damaging ones.

Gordon Rae said...

Wonderfully well put. I've been disappointed by how many earnest, intelligent, Guardian-reading people are unable to engage with either the theory or the practice. You put it so well: they are inside the castle. They are like the avatars in Tron who know nothing of the world outside, except that we couldn't exist without them.

Rick said...

So what's stopping people "getting on with doing something they want to do" and getting "something done without government" now?