The Big Society Backlash?
This month, I'm posting a guest blog from Chloe Stables of NCVO's Campaign team, rounding up some of the background of the Big Society and the challenges it raises for our sector...
A number of high profile Conservatives have, publically and privately, lamented the decision to make the Big Society the centrepiece of their election campaign. Many complained it did not 'connect' on the doorstep, that is was too vague to have any real meaning, and was too easy for their opponents to pour scorn on.
As details of the coalition deal began to emerge, many doubted whether the Big Society would make the cut as the realities of Government hit home. Slowly a few tantalising details emerged – Chris Huhne 'accidently' let the cameras see the Big Society chapter heading on the folders he was carrying as he hurried to and from coalition talks, and the initial coalition agreement offered a stab at a Con-Lib mission statement – "a Big Society matched by big citizens".
Finally, last week in Number 10, the Coalition renewed its commitment to the Big Society agenda. In their first joint public appearance since their press conference in the Number 10 rose garden, the Prime Minister and his Liberal Democrat deputy invited community leaders to discuss how to turn their vision of a "big society" into a reality. They outlined three key areas – allowing people to have a say in the services that affect them, empowering communities to address local issues and supporting the work of neighbourhood groups, charities and social enterprises. Work on this agenda has already begun in earnest – Eric Pickles described the forthcoming decentralisation bill as the 'foundation' of the big society and Francis Maude will lead the public services review from the Cabinet Office due to report in the autumn.
Although much of it needs greater clarification and more translation into policy, this is meaningful and welcome. And if sensitively delivered, this agenda offers the possibility of a genuine step change in how government works and how citizens interact with the state. There is, however, a real danger of a Big Society backlash, if the criticisms levelled during the election campaign persist.
There is still much confusion about what the Big Society entails. It is important that the sector engages with the reality of this agenda and not the rhetoric. There is a clear role for the voluntary and community sector to set out where it can contribute, and how Government can support them to do so. This is why NCVO will be looking to bring organisations together to explore some of the detail of the Big Society agenda.
As with all Government initiatives, there is also a danger of putting too much emphasis on creating something new. The role of existing VCOs, and the relationships they have established within and between communities, must be recognised and supported. The sector must be unequivocal in claiming its place at the table during this debate – we understand and connect our local communities and the development of this agenda must be done in partnership. The slogan "nothing about us – without us" remains as relevant today as it was during early 1980s.
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