Regular readers will know I am possibly the world’s biggest fan of the (real) concept behind the Big Society, and also that I have always been a bit disappointed that 1) it was allowed to become portrayed as just being about volunteering and 2) the Tories stopped talking about it. However on the plus side, it’s absolutely one of the policies that they have had enormous success with but don’t talk about much, which I suppose if you have to choose is the best way for it to be.
So today’s announcement about 3 days a year for employees in large companies and for public sector workers to participate in the Big Society is great. What does it mean in practice? It means that 15 million people will do something different. It means that 15 million people will talk to each other outside their normal context. And it means that 15 million people will be able to choose what they put their efforts into.
Out of this are likely to grow some extraordinary things. I’ve recently been working on some tech and innovation stuff, and one of the most powerful and encouraging things I’ve noticed has been that random conversations produce innovation of all sorts. Another is just how positive and front-footed people are – much more so than in politics, where so often we say, “oh that won’t work” and get all snooty about other people’s ideas.
But even if people don’t start something different, they will improve what exists already. They will be part of personalising services in schools and healthcare; they will be part of making sure that the services they engage with actually deliver what people want; they will link together inputs and outcomes far better than any government statistics could ever hope to, and they will hugely strengthen the bonds in their communities.
I wrote a piece two and a half years ago about the Big Society which I think has stood the test of time. My near-conclusion was this:
Actually, my favourite rationale for the Big Society isn’t about the big philosophical picture at all. It’s that people are overwhelmingly sceptical about anything that any government does. They don’t believe politicians. They don’t trust them. They don’t like them. And therefore (so they say) anything that takes power away from them is a great thing.
So the Big Society really means that politicians don’t control things any more, because people do. They can choose the right school for their child. They can choose their GP, their consultant, their hospital. They can choose whether they want to volunteer in their own community, or take advantage of others’ work (which is fine – otherwise why bother encouraging volunteers in the first place! If a service is not used it will not survive). They can choose how far they want to get involved in all sorts of things – from getting together to show that the demand is there for superfast broadband, to what priorities their police focus on, to what kind of bin service they want, to planting some flowers in their street, to how they run their businesses, to using social enterprises for their day to day needs…
And that, in the end, is what this announcement is about. It’s giving individuals with knowledge and expertise the freedom to come together to innovate and connect. And what they will do with that power is awesomely full of potential to make all of our lives better.