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Doing Big Society

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A prominent local government commentator was recently heard to ask “Does anybody know any councils who are doing Big Society?”

This immediately strikes me as a strange question but it lies at the heart of a growing divide between the Big Society believers and the Big Society bashers.

During my time as an adviser to Hazel Blears at DCLG we gave a lot of energy to thinking about how councils could more readily embrace and develop the notion of community empowerment. Countless programmes and schemes were created with varying degrees of success culminating in the Empowerment White Paper and the ‘Duty to Involve’.

Some councils became ‘civic pioneers’, others joined in regional empowerment partnerships and there have been more good practice guides for councils than you can shake a stick at. But whilst it grieves me to watch so many of these now withering on the vine, it was always clear – and remains a key concern of councils – that the success of any scheme can only be measured in terms of its ability to mobilise and involve citizens in what it is seeking to achieve: responding to survey, volunteering at an event, running a community centre.

Too often, our plans were hatched as public sector programmes which we were asking, sometimes begging, busy people to join. If we approach Big Society in a similar fashion and ask, as public institutions, how we are ‘doing Big Society’ then results will disappoint.

Even with the significant sums of cash thrown at community empowerment in the past decade this approach has had mixed results. With the derisory amounts now being touted for the Big Society Bank and community organisers somehow expected to raise their own salaries there is no chance Big Society can flourish as a government programme at any level.

At its best, Big Society is not a programme but a clever brand or concept. It is not so much a demand on councils to set up new schemes or initiatives but a call on citizens to empower themselves.

Big Society is supposed to encourage us as individuals, not as public service providers, to each look at our own civic involvement and consider what we are doing to improve our local neighbourhood or support our public services.

The question is not so much ‘what are councils doing?’ but ‘what are citizens doing?’ in the name of a bigger society. And that is how it must be judged. To that extent, there is a strong and powerful case for councils not to do anything new at all but to keep in place the various community empowerment schemes and initiatives that have gone before – much evidence points to the stability of community involvement structures being key to their success.

Instead, councils might see the Big Society challenge as how engender a great sense of public spiritedness amongst its citizens.

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