Though it is coming in for much stick at present it is worth recognising that the concept of the Big Society represents an end point at which benign political systems have been aiming.
In it, society self-regulates: mature citizens manage their own affairs, and a commons establishes itself.
Peace prevails, social harmony reigns, resources are negotiated amicably and no one worries about post code lotteries. Administration is but a memory of days gone by: people just get on with real things and help each other out as and when.
All relationships exist on a horizontal axis - no state plunges downwards from above to dictate how anyone should behave and has little call to intervene when things go wrong. If democracy was always a means rather than an end, then the Big Society surely must be the destination it always sought.
But even if the Big Society is the end devoutly to be wished, it remains a long way off and, in the meantime, we have adults who can’t look after themselves, children at risk, schools that can’t seem to get things right, viruses that spread, weather that shuts airports, etc, etc. In short, there’s plenty of stuff that calls for a coordinated response, stuff that might not be best addressed if just left to local neighbourhoods, friends or family.
The state, in other words, still has a role. But let’s be clear what this means: there’s the State and there’s the state.
The State is that ideological entity that has a right to be. It’s there because it’s more important than the individual. It has its roots in Marx, and it still has a manifestation in North Korea and, up to a point, China. For Americans it is the hated Big Government.
The state, by contrast, is something far less grand. It’s the layer of administration required to allow ordinary people to live their lives. As tax payers, we ordinary people pay a tithe in the expectation that we’ll be looked after by this more modest state. In effect, we’re buying a form of social insurance.
So although the public sector is currently being framed as pure overhead, and public sector managers portrayed as fat cats even more loathsome than bankers because they feed directly from the public purse, the loss of the public sector and its managers would lead not to the nirvanha of the big society but to a breakdown in social relations and a poorer quality of life for all of us.
You can take them away, but you’ll only end up reinventing them. Try organising rubbish collection on a big society, street-by-street basis, and you’ll soon realise that nobody wants to do it unless you pay them. In any case, it’s better done with economies of scale that involve buying a big truck that operates more or less full-time, and therefore on a basis that takes you out of the micro-local scene. What’s more, you’ll then need someone to organise it - a manager.
The state may look more like the dreaded State for each of us at different times (though we might all experience it as the latter when we have broken parking regulations) and sweeping it away might sounds attractive. But before long, a more nuanced view will be required.
This isn’t to argue that the public sector hasn’t grown too large and too complex, or that the cost of the management overhead in public sector organisations doesn’t need to be reduced. It’s a truism that organisations become less efficient the more money they have. But we can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. We must seek to preserve not what’s best about the public sector for its own sake, but precisely those functions which enable a so-called big society to function smoothly.
There are also two kinds of management. Organising a bin collection on a borough basis requires the kind of operational management to which I’ve already referred. This is outward-facing management, so to speak.
Though still a cause of opprobrium, it’s somewhat less the target of the cuts and the cutters than the second kind of management, which might seem to be inward-facing. This is the management required in order to equip and motivate staff to do their job. Workers without leaders are, unsurprisingly, leaderless. The manager provides this function. It’s harder to quantify, but it’s essential.
Rather than just keeping its collective head down and taking its punishment, the public sector needs to make its case more clearly. It needs to help the public understand the value it adds, demonstrating clearly that it is the state and not the State. Otherwise we risk the loss of much that citizens value though may not recognise till it is gone.
Moira Gibb, chief executive, Camden LBC