Civil society rejects plans for Big Society


9:00 am - December 2nd 2010

by Don Paskini    


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In November, the government wrote to civil society organisations inviting them to be part of building “The Big Society”. The Directory of Social Change considered their case and has written back, explaining why the government’s application had been unsuccessful:

Dear HM Government,

Thank you for your recent application requesting that we join you as partners in building the “Big Society”, as outlined in your open letter to us, dated 12 November.

Unfortunately we are unable to progress your application for a number of reasons.

1. While you clearly understand your vision, you unfortunately did not articulate your vision with reference to the wider context of your planned work. By way of example, a number of our assessors raised questions such as “but how big is society now, and how big do they plan to make it?” and “their policy decisions are being presented as based on fact and evidence, when they clearly are not”. They also expressed concerns that the mechanism by which you intend to provide “opportunities” (contracting services) means every opportunity offered to the voluntary sector is simultaneously (and legally required to be) offered to the private sector, and loaded with other risks. Failure to acknowledge and reference potential competitors and include a realistic risk analysis lost you significant marks.

2. Your determination in key areas, though admirable, is clearly not enough. It was our assessors’ understanding that despite reiteration of your wish that your local councils do not cut voluntary sector budgets, that is exactly what is happening. Further, your stated commitment to The Compact is, shall we say, incongruent with your current interactions with the sector.

3. Although an outline plan of work was included as an appendix, our assessors felt that the lack of clear objectives, and the total absence of any measurable impact or outcomes, made most of the proposals quite unsupportable. You increasingly demand such information from those organisations you wish to partner with; our assessors felt that it would therefore be quite wrong for them to accept anything less from your own proposals.

4. The assessors felt that the proposals offer a distinct lack of innovation. While they were optimistic that some of the work streams held the potential for innovation, there was little evidence that would materialise. Several used the phrase ‘reinventing wheels’.

5. There is insufficient evidence of need underpinning many of your proposed work streams. For example, the only evidence the assessors are aware of relating to the idea of a Big Society Bank finds that there is no actual need for one.

Despite the feedback from the assessors, we believe that there is some merit within the proposals you have outlined, and would encourage you strongly to reapply, taking strong heed of the feedback we have provided, and paying particular attention to showing evidence of need, together with clear plans for how you intend to monitor and report the impact and outcomes of your proposals.

Yours Faithfully,

Civil Society

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About the author
Don Paskini is deputy-editor of LC. He also blogs at donpaskini. He is on twitter as @donpaskini
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Reader comments


Dont give up the day job, Dan. That was lame.

I love this! Spot on! You have obviously written quite a few failed bids in your time. Cameron’s application isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

3. Chaise Guevara

@ 1

“Dont give up the day job, Dan. That was lame.”

Um, check the link. And who’s Dan?

Personally I thought the irony and comedy was a little lame, but one doesn’t expect Civil Society to be experts at writing jokes. Then again, we wouldn’t normally expect a government to be expert at writing jokes and yet they are full of them!

N.b. I did not write this, am just passing it on. I do, however, wish I was as funny as the author of this piece.

6. Chaise Guevara

Personally, I think this kind of dry humour is elevated by the very fact that it’s coming from an organisation you would normally expect to be diplomatic. Bit of a kick in the teeth for Cameron (that and the fact that he’s created a situation where cops abuse the civil rights of citizens in the street, of course).

When I worked in the civil service (a long time ago), new programme proposals had to be accompanied by supporting ROAME statements or risked being instantantly binned by departmental vetting procedures – ROAME standing for: Rationale, Objectives, Activities, Monitoring and Evaluation.

This requirement had evolved partly in response to the Thatcherite insistence upon Compliant-Cost Assessments for new regulations, a basic requirement to show that the compliance costs falling on the regulated businesses, together with the perennial administrative costs of regulation, were commensurate with the anticipated benefits of new regulations as claimed by proposers.

Both procedures installed admirable administrative disciplines. From personal experience, it was surprising how so many proposals for new programmes and regulations initially amounted to little more than vague statements of benign intent. This seems to be the fundamental failing of the Big Society notion too.

I’ve previously asked here several times for information on exactly when in history did Britain possess this Big Society configuration and about which other countries could claim to have it now? Denmark, perhaps, in the light of this finding:

Denmark is the ‘happiest place on earth’:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/5224306.stm

8. Chaise Guevara

@

“From personal experience, it was surprising how so many proposals for new programmes and regulations initially amounted to little more than vague statements of benign intent. This seems to be the fundamental failing of the Big Society notion too.”

I’d go so far as to say it was its defining principle.

“I’d go so far as to say it was its defining principle.”

I’m inclined to believe that Cameron’s notion of the Big Society is intended to serve much the same political function as Blair’s notion of the Third Way.

However, I must admit that the Third Way did at least attract some academic support and its own gurus – such as Tony Giddens, director of the LSE – but the Big Society doesn’t seem to have managed that.

10. Chaise Guevara

@ 9

You may well be right, but at least the Third Way is substantive up to a point: on a given issue, you can ask yourself “what’s the Third Way approach to dealing with this?” and maybe get an answer.

The creed of the Big Society seems to be “We can cut what we like, things’ll pan out fine anyway”, and its philosophy is pure “I’m all right, Jack”.

Curious.

The chairman of the Directory of Social Change is Nick Seddon, deputy director of the think-tank Reform, which I’d have thought was a bit right-wing for most tastes here. Seddon was also once the communications director for Circle, the John Lewis- style outfit getting a pasting on another thread for its part in allegedly privatizing the NHS.

The response, of course need not have come from the top. Certainly the terms, approach and language it employs are rooted in the Bureaucratic Age. Wake up guys and smell the coffee: we’re in the post-bureaucratic age now. No third sector outfit that can write/think drivel like this will get apenny of BigSoc cash and quite right too. (Hint: anyone caught using phrases like “evidence base” is BA, not PBA).

Fighting smoke-screened jargon with smoke-screened jargon – esoteric jargon at that. Are we, the great uninvited and uninitiated ( punters, Mug -voters, gullible dead-heads, Daily Mail readers, Lib Dems who’ve lost their faith etc) supposed to find this humorous or intelligible even? Big Society? “While you clearly understand your vision . . . ” – who’s kidding who? You’re right Chaise @8 Big Society is only a notion – located somewhere over the rainbow. A mirage in the Tory tax cutting desert – a vague notion from the ‘Millbank false-dawn department’ – the crumpet-smelling pipe dream of an old Etonian – perhaps – but a clearly understood vision? Come off it Cameron – it’s the King’s new clothes all over again – society may be looking for something to believe in – in an age of religious and political atheism – but this insubstantial Tory pie in the sky is impossible to swallow – half-baked, humbug-filled ingredients made us ill us last time – take it away!.

13. Chaise Guevara

@ 11 Flowerpower

Since this thread hinges on concepts being properly defined, what do you mean by the “post-bureaucratic age”, when did we enter it, and what were the causes and indicators of that?

It’s a shame about Fred but nobody had volunteered to cover that day.

15. Chaise Guevara

@ 14

Yup.

This letter reminds me with a shudder of so much pointless New Labour bureaucracy. Not that Im a fan of the Big Society either, but I didnt find the post funny, just sad and frustratingly lacking in self awareness.

17. Shatterface

I just wish Leslie Nielson was still around the read this out.

flowerpower – I really hope we are entering a post bureaucratic age.

I think everyone should buy the Labour supporter in their life a copy of Brazil for Christmas.

19. Flowerpower

Chaise

Michael Gove defines it here:
http://www.blip.tv/file/2728899

20. Flowerpower

I commend to all those still playing catch-up Jesse Norman’s book
The Big Society – an anatomy of the new politics.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Big-Society-Jesse-Norman/dp/0956395201

If you’re too busy to read the whole book, you could do worse than the Independent’s Amol Rajan’s intelligent review:

….. Its argument is clear and cogent: the state is too big and boisterous. It should be smaller and smarter. Growth in the power of our state has produced diminishing returns in the quality of public services, portrays citizens as passive recipients of centralised benefaction, and is unaffordable. It has taken place during the reign of homo economicus – a flawed representation of the human being’s economic preferences, which portrays him as rational and acting on the basis of perfect information, when actually he is neither.

At the same time, political theory has been obsessed with the freedom of the individual and the function of the state, but said too little about what is in between: institutions. We need a theory of institutions. The Big Society aims to harness their power, whether large (school) or small (family), to boost fraternity.

Norman calls on a central idea in the work of Michael Oakeshott, his conservative hero, to advance this theory. Oakeshott distinguished between two types of society: civil versus enterprise associations. The former is an association of citizens who are equal under the law but have no common purpose or plan; the latter is a project in which citizens are conscripted into a common, broad undertaking, usually aimed at world improvement. Oakeshott preferred the former.

Norman’s introduction of a third category is liable to be remembered as his great contribution to political thought. It is timely, astute and compassionate. For the Big Society, the “connected” society, we need a philic association, from the Greek philia, meaning “tie”, “affection”, “friendship” or “regard”. This can be a vehicle for the human affections embodied by institutions. Unleashing those affections is the aim of the Big Society.

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/the-big-society-by-jesse-norman-2136907.html

21. Chaise Guevara

@ 19 Flowerpower

“Michael Gove defines it here:
http://www.blip.tv/file/2728899

Can’t watch stuff on this computer (no audio). I’ll take a look later. Thanks for the link.

It’s a bit lame as said previously. I copied this definition of “Big Society” off the web:

“A unified and cohesed challenge to Britain’s failings as a whole”

Seems fair enough to me, someone has to attempt it ?

23. Chaise Guevara

@ 22

“Seems fair enough to me, someone has to attempt it ?”

Attempting that isn’t called “Big Society”, it’s called “government”. You seem to be making the assumption that Britain’s problems can only be solved through laissez-faire policy.

“Seems fair enough to me, someone has to attempt it ?”

That seems a bit too much like trying to ape the terrible Blairite “holistic” approach to me, which invariably reminded of the totalitarian ethic. Making that connection isn’t altogether surprising in the light of the regular Blairite disregard for personal liberty issues. As Dr Goebbels used to say, those who have nothing to hide, have nothing to fear. Anyone for another national database of personal details?

So far as I know, no one has yet attempted to climb the North Face of the Eiger in mid winter wearing only their underwear. However, they does not seem to me to be a persuasive reason for trying. But I could be wrong.

@ 23 and 24

Fair enough, you’re not up for the challenge, many will agree with you I’m sure.

Ungrateful wretches.

This lot take over £1m per annum in salaries (donated by taxpayers) and come up with this sort of stuff…………..

If Cameron has any sense he will cut their funding entirely, then check if they’re still laughing.

What do the people of London think about The Big Society? We asked:
http://www.dontpaniconline.com/DPTV/dont-panic-backs-the-big-society


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
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