What has happened to the Big Society?

Just a few months ago it was one of the most talked about things. It was making headlines, it featured regularly in postings on social media and everyone wanted a piece of it. All the interest was generated without any clear understanding of exactly what it was.

The Big Society is now a well used phrase with many groups and individuals wanting to take it forward, and find ways that it can be brought to life. And yet as quickly as the politicians were raising it into the spotlight claiming it as the way forward in 2010 they have dropped it from their priorities.

Instead all the headlines now are about the comprehensive spending review, public sector cuts and the possibility of a double dip recession looming round the corner. Perhaps it is because of the criticism that has emerged about the Big Society being used to justify the cuts or as a replacement for staff that has relegated it to the sidelines at the moment. It may be simply that we have the party conference season upon us and politicians are inwardly focused.

Back in July I wrote in this blog about the potential of the Big Society. The Government Big Society document outlined:

“We want 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.”

Big Society document launched in July

Since then there is very little that has been introduced to support this and in many cases decisions that are being taken appear to contradict this ethos. These are decisions that impose a central solution to an issue. Whether that central control is the appointment of a police commissioner or the continued centralisation of targets. Interesting that in policing since the end of the Policing Pledge there has been no reduction in the amount of central control and the requirement to meet national targets.

And with the looming public sector cuts we can expect no short-term change to reduce the stranglehold of government. People were given an opportunity to make their views known about where and how to implement cuts. It will be interesting to see whether this has had any impact on where the cuts are actually going to come and which departments are going to be most affected when they are announced in October.

The Big Society document also said:

“Government on its own cannot fix every problem. We are all in this together.”

Yet it doesn’t feel as though we are all in this together. In my local community little has changed except people have less money, are concerned they may soon lose their jobs and the interest in, and ability to, develop local services is not at the forefront of anyone’s mind. These are the poor communities that in the North West often rely on public sector employment for their wealth and prosperity.  The people living in such communities will be too busy with the day-to-day struggle to survive.

The challenge is how do you continue to move towards the Big Society at a time when public sector cuts are being introduced?

The threat will be that after making some big strides towards working with communities in a whole host of areas a reduction in resources will be a retrograde step. Workers will not have the time, or in some cases the inclination, to continue to build on the efforts so far. Local people will not have the time to push for change and make it happen.

For example, we could see a slowing down of neighbourhood management in councils and the police. Will our services become focused on the most critical areas of service? Where will the leadership come from to make the Big Society happen?

For the Big Society really to have the impact that seemed inevitable when it was introduced it needs to be at the core of all activity. Most importantly it needs to be supporting decision-making around the outcome of the comprehensive spending review. In that way it will move from being a slogan with no substance to being a real vision for the future. All will become clear in the next four weeks when the future is outlined and the Big Society will die or thrive.

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