July 19, 2010

Is Big Society workable or is it just another Big Con(servative!) pie-in-the-sky idea?

Maybe this is the cleverest move by any government in history… to make the people accountable. The government take the credit if it succeeds or blame the people if it all comes tumbling down.

Prime Minister David Cameron today launched his vision for developing the nation by allowing some local services to be operated by the community. Examples of his plan include the running of post offices, libraries, transport services and influence on housing projects.

Initially, the plan sounds like either a cost-cutting exercise by devolving power (and accountability? we’ll come back to that one) or an ambitious attempt to re-create ‘old-fashioned’ local community. However, the concept appears fraught with issues…

If the concept is devolution and cost-saving then the intention is surely to remove these financial ‘burdens’ from the tax payer and from government budgets but has anyone actually stopped to consider the bureaucracy to ensure these functions operate safely, legally, efficiently, etc., etc.? Effectively, you may lose the cost of the staff who operate any of these functions but ultimately you still require the same governing bodies to monitor, inspect and report on the success or failure of this massive ‘outsource’ project.

So, the next question is what happens when one of these Big Society enterprises fails? How is success and failure to be measured? Do the government still retain final say? Isn’t this just a recipe for future disaster? The experience (and Tory criticism) of re-nationalising banks during the recent banking crisis must surely be a warning. The banking crisis may actually have been a simpler problem to resolve because it had central focus in a number of high street businesses whereas should a Big Society enterprise fail it is likely to be independent, random and could be based anywhere in the country… back to the need for government supervision and the associated cost!

There is one major requirement to enable Big Society to succeed… the population (the tax payers themselves). We have become a demanding and selfish nation over many years so do we understand the true meaning of community and what it requires? David Cameron calls this an opportunity for “people power”. Haven’t we got too much ‘people power’ already? Nearly every sniff by government is already questioned, queried, challenged, so how can smaller social organisations not be faced with the same accountability and who will police it? There is every possibility that this could deteriorate into more court cases for every sniff, sneeze and tickle of the throat unless the people themselves accept and comprehend that “people power” is intended as an opportunity to improve rather than undermine.

It is no great secret that in spite of John Major’s class-less society, there are very different levels of social class across the country. There is a certain sense of elitism brewing in the background here. Those that invest their time and effort (and possibly make money) from taking their Big Society carrot, will also want to protect any achievement or improvement. Unfortunately, we do not live in an alturistic society and unless there is a suitable profit to maintain and support those that don’t contribute, these services could become restricted to those that have over those that have not. For example, how does it work for pensioners who are unable to volunteer or pay but are reliant on the services or schools where some families can afford books and trips while others may not be able to? And, in the same manner, this could also undermine integration and multi-culturalism as it is a human characteristic to associate with those that you best relate to and ‘organisers’ may well prioritise their own interests over the general requirements of the whole community.

Let’s hope that the coalition government have done their maths correctly and have an understanding of the demographics because this could be something that haunts David Cameron over the coming years… from Big Society to Big Joke!

Last updated: August 4, 2010 at 11:20 am