I’m modestly pleased at the recent succession of posts which do not refer to Big Society. But I guess my thinking just went underground for a bit. This is the first of two or three posts in which, belatedly, I’ll start to offer a critique from the community development perspective.
I find it helps seeing Big Society in the context of traditional attitudes towards governance, which are characterised by dichotomous ‘I/You’ confrontational thinking. This kind of thought does not overlap readily with collective or co-operative (or ‘We’) thinking, but in Big Society they seem to have been teamed up together. What will happen?
‘I/You’ thinking is associated with explicit command relationships, given to careful control of information (secrecy) and minimising empowerment. It is associated with a masculine style of management (widely practised by women as well as men, of course) – largely humourless, limiting negotiation, ever-ready to celebrate what it calls ‘strong leadership’. It says, ‘I am in charge and telling you what to do. By all means do your little bit of collective thinking amongst yourselves, but that won’t change the circumstances of who is in charge’. It is characterised by the stifling of growth, certainty of decision-making, and a refusal to admit mistakes or weaknesses.
The public and community sectors are saddled with a lot of people like this, many of them currently relishing the chance to show how ‘strong’ they are at a time when cutbacks are necessary. Hierarchical organisation was invented for these people, they have evolved to exploit it and dominate. Confrontational thinkers are often very clever people given to doing stupid things in very assured ways. They remind me of a remark attributed I believe to Lord Melbourne, who said of somebody, a historian I think it was, ‘I wish I was as sure of anything as he is of everything’. That’s not a very nice thing to say about someone, which is why it’s so appropriate to apply to these people.
‘We’ thinking, by contrast, tries to acknowledge rather than deny the mess and asks, ‘how can we sort this together?’ It doesn’t always do this very well, is easily side-tracked or hijacked and subject to interference, depends on mutual support, openness, inclusion, uncertainty, discovery, shared learning, making mistakes, and growth in a sympathetic ecology. No wonder it’s never successfully run much for very long.
I think what happened when the Big Society idea was concocted was that Conservative thinkers realised that overt ‘I/You’ thinking is running out of steam, historically. Something called the network society is coming over the hill which is gradually bringing an end to hierarchical systems. The emphasis is going to be on governance not government; on co-operation and openness not command and control. What should we do? Let’s occupy some ‘We’ thinkers’ terrain, and control that. Just bring some of this collective mentality into the foreground a little, not too much. The rhetoric of empowerment, that’ll do nicely.
So here we are at an intermediate stage. Our leaders are still people with confrontational mindsets and they continue to encourage similar attitudes and behaviour in management situations. But they look increasingly anachronistic. They have opened the door on collaboration because they had little choice; but they will continue to try to control things through organisations, without (as Mike Chitty writes) encouraging any real self-determination.
Now we need urgently to look beyond organisations for solutions, to informal networks. There’s plenty of evidence to show the effect of network power – Avaaz, for example, co-founded by Res Publica, offers as much inspiration as we need. Perhaps I’m over-optimistic, but I can see a way in which Big Society foretells its instigators’ demise. Let’s get on with it then.