Saturday, 05 February 2011

Over here: big society. And over here: funding cuts Here (from about 53 mins) is Philip Blond on R4 last night telling us that big society has to be separated from the public sector cuts agenda: 'they're not related and they come from different places.' Today we have the leader of Liverpool City Council withdrawing the city's involvement as one of the four national pilot areas for big society schemes, because government cuts have threatened the future of many voluntary organisations, hence jeopardising, entirely predictably, activities carried out under the aegis of big society: 'How can the city council support the big society and its aim to help communities do more for themselves when we will have to cut the lifeline to hundreds of these vital and worthwhile groups?' In the past week or so I've run two workshops with voluntary sector organisations in a crisis context. These are rugged organisations accustomed to working on the edge, they don't squeal easily; but this crisis is different. And these are people who have put passion, energy, values and skills into developing services for people in need - the kinds of people for whom the government shows contemptuous indifference. You can try telling them that what they're doing is a crucial, valued part of big society. And/or you can try telling them that no no, the big society ethos (polite coughing) is not at all related to the public sector funding cuts. It's ok, go ahead, you won't get howls of derision or abuse. They won't take you that seriously. Because the part of big society rhetoric that is meaningful - like the importance of association and 'community' - they already know, they're already familiar with it, most of them are expert at it. The rest is perceived as vacuous and, believe it or not, they're a bit busy right now. Nor are you likely to hear people suggesting that this government might just be making the effects of the financial crisis considerably worse than is justifiable, and effecting cuts in a vindictive and unequal way. Most spotted that some time ago and are reconciled to it. There's stuff to do. Sorry, the conceptual separation of economics from cultural change will have to wait.
'Communities! Seize your opportunities!' I try not to be negative all the time, honestly, but these are strange times. Here's an unfortunate post on the ResPublica blog which exemplifies the peculiar cultural gap in understanding that divides the country. Matt Leach comes straight out and admits that big society is top-down: but version 2.0 is emerging which will be - wait for it - 'the start of a transfer of responsibility for mobilising and leading the project from central government downward to our neighbourhoods and communities.' Stand well back, here comes big society 2.0 (or 'Big Society' as these people like to frame it: the initial capitals presumably intended to give some cred just in case it struggles to merit it). It strikes me that version 2.0 will probably accelerate the tendency to retrospective or lateral branding. Expect more desperate or subtle attempts (like this one previously) to capture and badge 'initiatives like Lambeth's Co-operative Council, emerging plans around housing in Rochdale...' as evidence of big soc. Among the give-away remarks in the article - Big Soc Two Dot Nought, we are told, is going to be 'an open source project defined by the extent to which communities are willing to seize the opportunities available.' I know it's just one throw-away piece of weak rhetoric but it does exemplify the problem I think. It's not nice to accuse people of arrogance but when they are in a position of influence it may be justified. I'm prepared to believe that much of BS thinking was conceived with good intentions and it's not all consciously politically manipuated. But are we to expect that 'thought leaders' will get any less arrogant in version 2.0? I've spent enough time over the past 25 years on the edge of London think-tanks, and in quite a few meetings in Westminster, in addition to time spent listening to people in community groups in various places around the country and beyond - people tryng to do stuff themselves against the odds. Those 'odds' don't just include overly-bureaucratic local government. They also include deeply-embedded class-based 'us-and-them' language breathed night and day by people in positions of power. We are the officer class, we govern, it's a tremendous responsibility you know. Your role is to be, well er, energetic, when we finally get the conditions right for you. The lesson I'm finally having to accept is that arrogance is inevitably found in positions of power and doesn't know itself. Anyone who can write 'the extent to which communities are willing to seize the opportunities available' without self-parody is so manifestly part of the problem, perhaps we just have to be patient until they go away.

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