The last few weeks have been dominated by work and a series of unpleasant events that have resulted in severe lack of sleep for me. I have had problems with water supply which has meant I have had to get up earlier and earlier in order to get enough water pressure to have a shower, and then in the last week an infestation of mice in my London flat has kept me up most of the night over about 5 nights. There’s been other things that have gone wrong too – gas stopped on one day and I lost somewhere on the London Underground, a much-treasured watch I was given as a 21st gift. So it’s not been a fun couple of weeks.
But leaving aside all the personal issues, I’ve been absorbing comments and concerns being expressed about new projects here in the UK. So far I’ve been fairly quiet about the whole Big Society concept of the incumbent government. Part of the reason why I’ve refrained from saying much is that on the surface, there’s not much that can be criticised about it. If I were to explain the Big Society concept as briefly as possible it would be this:
“Non-government, community-based support for ideas, people and regions in need.”
Simple huh? And that’s pretty much all it is. Instead of relying on government to deliver local needs, whatever they may be, the Big Society concept is designed to reignite a sense of community interest, and to get communities to help themselves. And not just for regional communities, but also interest-based communities.
The criticism the concept is attracting is an allegation that government is abrogating its responsibility in for caring for community needs, by recommending that communities look after their own needs. Such allegations seem to have merit, where community groups are suffering funding cuts. “Seem” of course, is the operative word here. Because those cuts aren’t necessarily a result of the Big Society concept, nor are they necessarily a bad idea for all funded operations. I don’t think anyone would argue that all government-funded operations are necessarily using their money efficiently, or adequately meeting the needs of their communities. Most are. But not all. The trouble is that most funded bodies are affected by current government cuts. But I seriously doubt that these cuts have anything to do with the Big Society.
Here’s my view: I think the criticism of the Big Society is focused on the wrong problem. Whatever the correlation between the concept and current funding cuts, the major problem of the Big Society concept is not a funding issue. It’s an issue of time and quality control.
Actually the Big Society concept is hardly new. Anyone who has been a member of a voluntary organisation, a charity service or a fellowship will tell you that community service is alive and well. And the people who (privately) raise funds for community interests or work to help communities in need, believe strongly in what they do. As a former member of Rotary International (and a current supporter of their work) I took a great deal of pride and pleasure in raising funds as well as contributing to my local community.
But the reason why I have not been able to pursue much recently is sheer lack of time. And I suspect that I’m not alone in that. I’ve been working very long hours recently – I’m not complaining because I enjoy what I do. But as a freelancer, and as a producer of content and strategy, I need to focus on what I’m doing in order to be valuable for my clients. I’m actually disappointed that I can’t do more for my community. I do what I can, and I think my contributions to a variety of fund-raising efforts, as well as efforts in the interests of technologies and technology practitioners, speak for themselves. But I just can’t work all the time. I’m often exhausted as it is, and I suspect my experience is pretty typical of most people.
It’s all very well to want to help your communities. But if you don’t have the time to spend with family and friends, or catch up on sleep, then the whole rationale for working for the community is flawed.
The other problem with the Big Society is quality control. When responsibility for community interests is devolved to communities, unless there are strict standards for delivery of services, you risk phenomenal differences in quality of service. If you think there’s a postcode lottery now for health care, school allocations, etc, this is just a fraction of what is to come.
I’m going to say something that I think will be quite controversial: I don’t actually have a problem with the Big Society concept. I quite like the idea of community members taking care of each other. I rather prefer it to many over-bureaucratised government bodies. However I think in order to succeed in a Big Society, you need two basic resources:
1. Incentives to participate in community services, either through individual or business tax breaks;
2. Independent quality control review boards, populated by people entirely unaffiliated with the organisations being reviewed.
Both these resources eat into any benefits to be derived from implementation of a Big Society, but technically, the benefits should accrue at a higher rate than any costs incurred through tax incentives. And importantly, for those who do not currently contribute time and money to community needs, there is an opportunity to engage in local civics and citizenship.
So I guess I’m saying in this post that the Big Society is possible. But it needs incentives and quality controls/regulation to be feasible. And more than that: as humans we need the time to be able to care for ourselves as well as others.