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Big Society starts small

Mon, 14th Feb 2011

The Big Society is like sex: people either talk about it or do it. By and large, those who are at it too busy to pontificate, and of course vice versa.

It’s like sex in another way too: to put it crudely, those who are treated sensitively and as equals enjoy it more, participate more and take the initiative more than those who feel they are being shafted.

Let's say it one more time. Citizen engagement, like engagement at work, is reciprocal. And at least initially, it’s an effect, not a cause – the result of being treated as a consenting adult. To participate in the Big Society you have to be included in society in the first place.

It couldn't be simpler. Engagement and participation are created by public services that work.

Here are three examples of what I mean.

At Portsmouth City Council, residents get their housing repairs done at the precise time and day they chose. If that means a week on Monday at 8.05 am or this Friday afternoon at 4.50, fine. (Wouldn’t it be nice if Virgin Media or BT could manage something similar?)

Portsmouth’s housing repairs take a fraction of the time and effort expended by other councils. One counterintuitive corollary of this virtuosity is that the service costs much less to deliver – 50 per cent less, to be precise, using fewer people.

But another consequence is residents who care. With repairs carried out faster and better, the estate looks smarter. Then, as savings are re-invested, the housing stock is not just maintained but upgraded. People notice and respond. They put pressure on residents inclined to spoil the party to toe the line. They form committees, and, to everyone’s surprise, some stand for election to the council. And they suggest new improvements to the repairs team. What were previously dead-end estates now have queues lining up for the few vacancies. The circle is complete.

Or consider the case of the ‘beat policeman of the year’ who was interviewed a year or so back on the Today programme.

He had turned his patch from a nightly no-go area into an oasis of calm. The drug-dealers had moved out and the old ladies back in. How had he managed this triumph of law and order?

Well, said the copper apologetically, disregarding official injunctions to use the centralised call centre, he had given out his mobile phone number – and kept the phone switched on. Result: when people phoned to complain of a rowdy party, a suspicious loiterer or even people dropping litter – he answered (remember the Woody Allen dictum: 'Ninety per cent of success is turning up'?). Then he nipped over on his bike and sorted things out on the spot.

By doing his job and using his discretion (ticking off but not criminalising badly behaved youngsters, for instance), he quickly won local trust and respect. The sequence is not hard to track. Effectiveness > trust > better intelligence > less petty crime and disturbance > calmer neighbourhood > people looking out for each other... and not a surveillance camera, vigilante committee or council-run Big-Society consultation in sight.

The third example: housing benefits. In most councils, it takes seven or eight weeks and up to 10 visits and phone calls to get through the social-security padlocks and perimeter fences that (in effect) ration benefits allocations. By then, claimants will have often run into other problems, such as rent and council-tax arrears, which feed back into each other in a never-ending cycle of insecurity and marginalisation.

But the cycle can be broken. By radically cutting time to calculate benefits (10 days or less), councils such as Stroud and East Devon made a startling discovery. Council tax and rent arrears problems fade away! They fade away even faster if benefits staff actively seek out such issues (‘Are you experiencing any other related problems?’) at the start.

One unexpected response: grateful claimants hand flowers and cake to staff instead of abuses and brickbats. But another is that they report change of circumstances more quickly, homelessness falls, and there are fewer desperate attempts to cheat. In short, they rejoin small society, a giant step towards being able to conceive of big one.

The Big Society can’t be directly wished or planned into existence, and the Big Society bank is largely a gimmick. It's a good example of obliquity, the by-product of a working, functioning small society embodied in the local benefits office, police station or doctor’s surgery. And unfortunately at this level much of what the government is actually doing runs counter to its vision.

For example, a huge amount of the remedial work undertaken in hard-pressed local benefits offices, not to mention charities like AdviceUK, is the result of the unexaggeratable upstream incompetence of the Department for Work and Pensions and HM Revenues and Customs in performing (not) their primary job of calculating tax and other entitlements correctly.

These ‘flagships’ of public-sector reform are monuments to early 20th-century Fordism, animated by a crude faith in size, specialisation and automation that are the antithesis of joined-up Big Society concerns.

Ironically, the same damaging obsession with size and scale is now threatening to disfigure the voluntary sector itself.

To qualify to bid for giant public-sector contracts, charity and third-sector bodies are being forced to amalgamate into larger, even national bodies, thus destroying the local volunteering spirit that attracted people in the first place. The stultifying bureaucracy surrounding children’s services and social care, to name but two, perform a similar function of deterring spontaneous generosity and neighbourliness.

The problem not that the idea of a Big Society is unattractive – it’s that it’s so lacking in operational definition as to be practically meaningless. The reality is that current public services have brought about the opposite of the ‘have a go’ society – one that is done to, regimented and disengaged. No amount of excited fanatasizing can change that. Malcolm Muggeridge once remarked that sex on the brain was the least satisfactory place to have it. Similarly with the Big Society. Like virtual sex, it may be enticing in concept, but a concept is no substitute for the real thing.

 


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