Wednesday, 19 May 2010

'Small state, big society' is obviously the right idea: so do it properly Hey, I just came across this fascinating document from the early years of new Labour, developing its ideas 'to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want.' Remember when this was novel? 'We will radically reform the planning system to give neighbourhoods far more ability to determine the shape of the places in which their inhabitants live.' Or this? 'We will take a range of measures to encourage volunteering and involvement in social action...' Oh you'd guessed, I was lying, actually it's from the Cabinet Office Building the Big Society document, released today. In publishing terms it's shoddy, in content terms it's underwhelming. I'm sorry for the run of negative posts recently, but I find this paper weak on one level because it's reasonable to expect Cabinet Office documents to show some sense of authority. They could start by having a statement of origin and a date of publication. This looks like an internal memo intended to motivate the back office staff. As to content, we already know there are old ideas like community involvement in planning, but there are some new ideas, or rather reaffirmation of ideas presented before the election, like making regular community involvement a key element of civil service staff appraisals. (Can I just ask, who's going to find that a particularly laudable policy measure? Yes ok The Daily Mail. Anyone else?) And the defenders of the faith will miss the point and condemn anyone and everyone who criticises this document for sour negativity, because we're all supposed to get behind the Big Society and do our bit for the country. This is a movement which has been created by people who are mostly wealthy, educated, empowered and influential, to encourage others who are not, to become active in the collective interest - overlooking minor questions of social justice, and swearing by a high proportion of ideas that were given a run-out over the past ten years of a previous government. Forgive us our scepticism. 'Small state, Big Society' is obviously the right idea. Pssst: we already knew that. So do it properly, start with the folk who've been doing it for a long time against the odds. There's more amusement for those of us watching the unseemly jostling for position around new faces in power. Take this comment from the CEO of NCVO, quoted by New Start magazine: 'Many may mock this new term – civil society.' Eh? The chief exec of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations thinks 'civil society' is a new term. What does that tell you about the state of civil society?

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