in Politics

Big Society: giving it permission

In an email the other day I commented that the two big pillars of the Big Society were re-branding and permission. I don’t think this is anything particularly profound (if it is, I’m probably unknowingly plagiarising something I’ve read somewhere) and have even remarked on the re-branding aspect myself.

The fact is that Big Society is just a new name, perhaps emphasis, on something that already happens all over. I first pointed to this in relation to the Battersea High Street Big Lunch – something you can analysis almost endlessly through a Big Society lens. First there were the businesses, then the various community groups who attended the event, then the people who went along and enjoyed the day. But even further you can argue that the Big Lunch itself is a Big Society project, seeking to encourage and help neighbours strengthen their communities. It’s welcome the government is looking at promoting society over itself, but society has always been able to look after itself when it needed.

But permission is a different matter entirely, and works on different levels.

The obvious one is for permission to actually do things, whether its setting up a school, running a service or organising a street party – it’s crucial that people are allowed to do this (and remarkably unhealthy that we’ve developed a society in which we often feel the state has to give that permission).

But it goes further. We need to develop a cultural permission to try new things, and I’m not so sure that’s there yet.

To take one example, in the existing Big Society ordinary people help run schools. Parents are elected as school governors, the education authority appoint some more and the governing body itself appoints members from the community. This is totally unremarkable – no-one questions whether these laypeople should have a role in running a school of (hopefully) professional staff, and have ultimate responsibility children’s education. So why is there controversy over the idea these very same people should have the right to establish their own schools?

It might be politics, those who oppose the idea tend (as far as I’ve seen) to be on the left, with unions particularly objecting to the idea. It might just be conservatism, a resistance to change and feeling of comfort with the status quo. It might be fear, what if they don’t work out or, perhaps worse, what if they do? And I occasionally worry that it’s down to a belief that only the state can fulfil certain functions without really questioning if that’s true.

And maybe there is something deeper in our national and institutional psyche that doesn’t like change and is suspicious of the new and the novel: a feeling that we do just fine, thank-you very much, there’s nothing we need to change or learn.

In fact the permission is not so much about what we are allowed to do, but what we are allowed to try. It’s the difference between being part of what’s already there, and being part of something new. While it would attract the ire of the Taxpayers Alliance we should be getting back to a stage in which improvement and innovation (which will always carry the risk of failure) should be celebrated. It has almost become cliché (through my overuse alone) that dealing with the deficit is a huge opportunity because it can drive innovation. But it can only do that if we as a society give ourselves permission.

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