Time for some militant optimism about the big society?

Time for some militant optimism about the big society?
The Guardian, by Caroline Slocock

We must reinvent the big society with a bigger role for the voluntary and community sector, says Caroline Slocock, director of thinktank Civil Exchange
Earlier this month, a group of 50 sector leaders met together at the Guardian’s voluntary sector network with Civil Exchange to review progress on the ‘big society’ and to consider whether they could reinvent it. The answer, it emerged, was yes — but only with different drivers behind the wheel, some new passengers in the bus and a route map heading for a fundamental change in society and how government works.

Civil Exchange’s Big Society Audit 2012 set the scene, highlighting lack of engagement and the negative impact of cuts, particularly in disadvantaged areas. I maintained that the potential power of civil society was huge, if weighed on the scales of public support, as opposed to turnover. But government still looked too much to big business in the big society, focusing on efficiency and scale, and failing to recognise the value of civil society as experts in local communities and creating a better society.

One person quickly announced the occasion to be wake. The big society had had its day, should be buried and not very decently. David Robinson from the Early Action Task Force pronounced it to be as much use "as an ashtray on a motorbike," as Patrick Butler, who chaired the event, has recorded in his blog. The anger sprang from concerns about the poorest and most disadvantaged in society, who were not only suffering unduly from the cuts in state funding but, David felt, were also being blamed by the government for being poor. Debbie Pippard from the Barrow Cadbury Trust referred to the "toxic splitting of the rich and the poor."

It had been a fallacy to believe that social capital could simply replace the state’s capital, Karl Wilding from the NCVO said. Volunteering needs funding, Helen Walker of Time Bank emphasised, but "the first thing this government did was cut the budget of every single national volunteering body." It was also "astonishingly inept" of the government to introduce the big society as "year zero," said Steve Wyler from Locality.

And yet, there remained the puzzle, as Adam Sharples, formerly of the Department of Work and Pensions, put it. Where did the Prime Minister’s commitment to the big society come from? It hadn’t won him much support, even in his own party, and yet he persisted. David Harker pointed out that it would be a mistake to write the big society off: the government had made a number of positive, concrete commitments and there was merit in tracking progress and holding them to account. Neil Jameson from Citizens UK was uncomfortable with the "obsession with the state," welcoming the focus on the role of families and individuals.

So, to reinvent the big society, where to start?

First, change the name. Karl Wilding voted for a Better Society, Hilary Bernard from HBMC called for a Generous Society. The voluntary and community sector should also have a much bigger role and, as Alison Seabrooke, from the Community Development Foundation suggested, there was a need to "understand, articulate and mobilise more even-handedly the role of public, private and voluntary sector." But was the voluntary sector too weak and divided to rise to the occasion? Voluntary and community organisations in deprived areas in particular were simply being overwhelmed with need, David Robinson said. Voluntary organisations were struggling to survive in the face of cuts and the shift from statutory grants to contracts. Steve Graham from Civic Voice called for the Government to establish a more visible framework for the third sector.

It was a mistake to think this was all about the voluntary sector, Lynne Berry of the new Canal and River Trust, counselled, and the voluntary sector was changing too, as assets were being transferred from the state. There was the important role for volunteers and for communities, as well as business and local authorities. The users of public services shouldn’t be forgotten. Empowering them to work with a diversity of service providers would help public services focus on individual and community needs, said Tom Levitt.

This was about a better society, not just an active voluntary sector. The big society would be judged on whether we had a "more just and equitable society," according to Peter Holbrook from Social Enterprise UK, and people and businesses would have to pay their taxes in full. It should promote real equality of participation, as Rebecca Veasey from the Women’s Resource Centre pointed out. Getting resources to the right places was important, targeted on the poorest communities and solving the problems they faced. A new funding model for civil society would help, with a plan for how to get there.

A far ambitious narrative was required and civil society needed to drive it, Dr Rob Macmillan from the Third Sector Research Centre said. But Peter Kenway from the New Policy Institute feared that the only thing that currently linked the very diverse sector together was money. Many felt that the debate needed to move on from complaints about cuts, which could be seen as being about provider interests, to the impact on people.

Prevention of social problems should be the operating logic of this new vision, said David Robinson, with transition plans to shift expenditure away from acute action so as to meet the "next generation test." His "ready for anything" society made a lot of heads nod. But this vision isn’t just a challenge for Government, but also for civil society too, some participants thought. We need more "militant optimists," Karl Wilding suggested, citing Collaborate, the Social Spaces community blog which creates brings people together to wrestle with and identify the changes needed to shape the future. "We need to reclaim the Big Society as our own," with an optimistic narrative of hope, added Steve Wyler.

The event started this process, and set off a debate, and we hope it will be possible to continue it within the Guardian’s voluntary sector network in the weeks ahead.