This blog doesn’t get thousands of readers, so I’m hoping that blogging about the Big Society doesn’t see off those readers I have! It’s rapidly becoming a tiresome subject, with lots of hot air on both sides. But I’ve been drafting our response to the Public Accounts Select Committee’s inquiry into the Big Society and I was struck by the similarities in the debate about the Big Society and the debate about personalisation in social care.
It says something about the policy that the first question the Select Committee asks about the Big Society is: What the hell is it?
I think the Big Society combines two ideas, one uncontroversial and one political. The (hopefully) uncontroversial idea is that it would be a good thing if it people found it easier to help each other more and to contribute to their communities. The party political idea is that the state inevitably gets in the way of people doing this, and so we need a smaller government. Whether one agrees with this point or not, the big state/ small state divide is one of the few remaining clear divides between ‘left’ and ‘right’ in mainstream politics.
At a time of public service cuts, it is understandable that in the minds of many people, “smaller government” and “shrinking public services” seem like the same thing. But small government describes the aspirations of government and its decision-making powers, particularly the extent to which central government controls local government, and local government controls communities. Whilst cuts are a question of how much is spent providing or funding local services.
The view in our draft response to the Inquiry (it’s not been sent in yet, so your views are welcome!) is that it would be a great pity if the debate about cuts precluded a sensible discussion of where the state should draw back, move sideways, or indeed step forwards and intervene to help. Whilst the overall size of the state is a party political issue, there are undoubtedly areas in which there could be cross-party consensus on the desirability of the state drawing back, or operating differently. And even the most “small state” and localising of politicians do on occasion advocate central government action to promote their preferred local approaches. For instance, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, suggested to delegates at an NCVO conference that councils could be overruled if they make unreasonable cuts to charity funding (see Pickles threatens councils with statutory force to ensure community funding at http://bit.ly/hEO2oH).
We’ve been campaigning on behalf of our micro-enterprise members who are affected by government red tape. We think we’ve got some progress on a regulation which, for no good reason, has been stopping people designing the service the people they support want. You could say it was an example of the state rolling back, but it had nothing to do with cuts and I’m worried that progress of this kind could get lost in all the noise.
You might not agree with my distinction between ‘small government’ and ‘shrinking public services’, but here’s what I think is an example of it. As care and support services are increasingly turned into personal budget allocations, there is scope for individual tailoring of solutions. Sometimes people will find cheaper ways of meeting their needs, but not always: the crucial thing is finding a better, more tailored solution.
The personalisation reforms are currently being brought into disrepute, because they are being rolled out in some areas at the same time as budget cuts, with some councils making cuts to individuals’ budgets or imposing across the board rises in eligibility criteria. A reform which has been crucial to raising people’s aspirations for the independence and choice of disabled and older people is experienced by some as cut in their support coupled with being asked to arrange their own services.
The Big Society will stand or fall on how it captures the public’s imagination. So far, the signs aren’t good. Likewise, although personalisation is not just about personal budgets, it will only succeed if people have the confidence and the support they need to take control of the resources allocated to them, without feeling like they are being hoodwinked into receiving the same for less. It may be too late to save the Big Society concept from its more ideological proponents and detractors, but it’s vital that we make sure it’s never too late for choice, control and independence.