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Our Insights 11 Mar 2011

Thoughts on the Notorious B.I.G.

By Kyra Maya Philips

British political discourse has recently been dominated by heavy debate on the country’s new controversial concept, the Big Society. Despite its prevalence, however, most struggle to understand its precise meaning, let alone its potential effects on their own lives.

In fact, a YouGov poll measuring the public’s understanding of the Big Society found that 63% didn’t grasp the concept well at all. Ironically, following a full week of “Big Society” campaigning designed to educate the public, that same number rose, to 72%. A Channel 4 documentary shows a confused citizen: when asked what she thinks of the Big Society, she replies: “Big Society…what’s that? Is that about obesity?”

The official Cabinet Office document on the Big Society (a meager three pages) describes the initiative as a desire to “give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want.” The document goes on with, “We are in this together…we need to draw on the skills and expertise of people across the country as we respond to the social, political and economic challenges Britain faces.”

This is certainly a conversation we need to be having. Over time, citizens have felt smaller, less powerful and less able to exert any real influence over political, economic and social decisions. According to the Big Society Network, a not-for-profit group aiming to help organizations in their civic engagement endeavors, only 4 in 10 Britons believe that individual citizens can influence local decisions, with only 1 in 33 actually attending any public meetings. These statistics highlight the need for greater community interaction in the political process, and the concept of government engaging more with civil society is a virtuous one. In the end, most solutions have a local dimension, so in this respect the notion of the Big Society appears to be a step in the right direction.

But it’s not all rosy. There are several problems with the execution of the Big Society concept, calling into question the true intentions behind this government policy.

Big or small, which is it?

For starters, it is very difficult to ignore the atrocious timing – i.e. amidst a wave of draconian public-sector cuts. Rather than being a genuine attempt to empower localism, the Big Society starts to seem like a defensive mask in the face of oftentimes legitimately critical attacks against the government’s handling of the deficit.

Also, while proponents clearly adore the rhetorical notion of a Big Society to counter the scourge of Big Government, it defies credibility to suggest that government itself isn’t – especially in the near term – a crucial pillar of society. Indeed, depending on your perspective, much of society as we now know it will inevitably shrink as a result of government spending cuts, and nowhere more acutely than at the local level. Witness that local councils are being asked to cut both quickly and deeply, the quickest and least expensive avenue through which is (predictably) to slash community services – we can’t expect this reality not to affect the rise of much-needed localism.

The key challenge, therefore, is how to resolve the tension between public-sector austerity and the vision of a strong culture fuelled by British localism.

Perhaps the most disturbing example of where the Big Society clashes with the reality of government policies is in homelessness. Westminster Council (one of this country’s richest), for instance, recently announced its intention to ban sleeping on the streets. As Johann Hari, one of Britain’s most distinguished journalists, writes in the Independent: “Westminster Council is taking action pre-emptively: they know that rough sleeping is about to sky-rocket as a direct result of David Cameron’s policies.”

Whether we might be seeing the return of the Thatcher-era “Cardboard City” or not – the government cannot communicate a message of localism whilst drastically cutting the money given those entities responsible for housing the homeless, and expect the public to buy it. Cornwall is cutting its homeless services by 40%. Southwark is going further to 50%, with Nottingham cutting by a ravaging 70%. Not that it’s ever good timing to make such decisions, but when cuts to Housing Benefits are threatening around 90,000 single tenants with eviction, it makes one ask how the Big Society offers any comfort to Britain’s most vulnerable. For those who need the benefits of the Big Society most, it might not sound like “we are in this together.”

Enter business?

Nick Hurd MP, the aptly dubbed “Minister of the Big Society”, has repeatedly called on big business to step in and fill the gap that will be left by the massive retreat of government. Business, he maintains, should do this through strengthening their already-existing links with charity groups and strive to become active players in the debate about the future of civil society. The private sector, however, has not even begun to “tap the surface,” and he urges the business world to “step up” to enact the government’s vision of the Big Society.

In his conversations, Hurd touches upon a few very interesting and complex issues. Though it seems to have fallen on deaf ears, he has repeatedly stated the philosophy behind the Big Society vision. Ultimately, it is about getting people to reconnect with the fact that we all have responsibilities beyond paying tax, obeying the law and maximizing profits for shareholders. The idea therefore seems to be inextricably linked to two important issues close to SustainAbility’s heart: personal social responsibility (PSR) and sustainability (going beyond the bottom line).

However, little detail has been offered on exactly how the government will facilitate this desired rise of PSR and sustainability within business and civil society. The strategy seems to be based solely on a troublesomely vague hope that civil society will effectively replace government.

The strengthening of grassroots activism, localism and civic empowerment has the potential to tap into what the Royal Society of Arts’ Matthew Taylor calls people’s “hidden wealth.” Unlocking this is precisely the key to making a concept like the Big Society work. Should we lose focus of this, it will be long before we see a British society that is testament to the fruits of collective responsibility. Still, the government must introduce the proper framework for this to occur: no sector will be able to drive it without its support.

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