When the LGIU brought together a group of council Leaders to meet with Lord Nat Wei – David Cameron’s Big Society guru – along with officials at Communities and Local Government and the Cabinet Office, we shed some light perhaps on why the Big Society isn’t taking off.
The first is that whilst many councils are doing great things to engage local citizens and communities in new ways, they don’t want to be told how to do it, or even what to call it, by the government. The second is that government representatives seemed pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm and practical examples of how councils are doing the ‘Big Society’ in their own local way. One senior government official said that it was the best meeting he’d been involved in on the Big Society. Lord Wei said he wished he could get the Prime Minister to come and join our discussion.
The decision by Liverpool City to withdraw from being one of the four ‘vanguard’ areas goes to the heart of the current problem. The council felt it had not been included in the ‘vanguard’, indeed it felt positively excluded. The Prime Minister asked Phil Redmond to head it up and to lead a community effort. Mr Redmond’s correspondence with the government, now made public following an FoI request, reveal that he was taken by surprise at the speed of the launch and was concerned at the lack of substance. This ‘lack of substance’ charge has dogged the Big Society progress to date, and with the announcement that Lord Wei is stepping back from his role for the government, there are inevitable headlines that the ‘Big Society’ is on the rocks.
The problem is that the ‘Big Society’ appears to be the Emperor’s new clothes. There is a simple and powerful way of fixing this though. The government should celebrate local diversity in developing the Big Society ideas in communities. I often hear councillors rejecting the ‘Big Society’ language, not because they don’t support the idea, but on the contrary because they feel that it doesn’t recognise their own efforts and role in engaging communities. We should redefine the Big Society as something that is shaped locally, and in which councils play a vital enabling role. As long as he’s then prepared to share the credit as well as the challenge with councils, the Prime Minister can then show that there is much more substance to the Big Society. This shared approach will be about harnessing all the current good practice, and a common aim to develop a new relationship between citizens, communities, services and government, with democracy at its heart.
This article was first published in the MJ.