in Politics

The inevitable failure of Big Society?

Wearing various hats I’ve found myself spending a lot of time talking about the Big Society recently (including, if you’ll forgive the name-dropping, with Nat Wei) and one common theme has emerged: failure.

Failure has been the first thing on the agenda in pretty much every discussion, whether with councillor or resident, Conservative or Labour, urban or rural. The big question, it seems, is what happens when (not if) it all goes wrong. But, as I have said in the past, failure is no bad thing; this isn’t to say we should look to fail, but we certainly shouldn’t fear it so much it stops us trying something new.

This fear of failure manifests itself in two ways; pro-active and reactive. They are both two sides of the same coin, essentially believing that people are, ultimately, not capable of running services for themselves. The pro-active version talks about the enormous about of support and development needed before people can take on responsibility (sometimes the argument is more refined; the ‘middle classes’ will be able to do this but those in deprived areas lack the skills; although I suspect that there are people in those deprived areas who have developed far better budgeting and time management skills than I will ever have). The reactive version assumes eventual failure and, therefore, means that councils will always need the capacity to bring services back in house.

But until we shake this fear of failure the Big Society will never work.

The first problem is that expectations are incredibly important; expect failure and that’s probably what you’ll get. Instead we should expect great things, like the Patton quote: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” If we start off expecting failure, people find it easy to live up to those expectations.

The second problem is that it isn’t Big Society, it’s essentially nursemaiding; like giving a child a bike, but never taking the stabilisers off – no-one will ever know if they can ride on two wheels or not. To me Big Society is all about moving the state away from being a provider, to being an enabler for most and insurance for some. This is the exact opposite, it’s sending the message that the state will continue as the insurance, because it doesn’t trust people to look after themselves.

The third problem is that when failure defines the policy, you have to define failure. If councils are the watchdog, ready to step in and ‘rescue’ failing services how do they know they are failing? They will have to set their success and failure criteria which means the council is effectively recreating a commissioning model. The town hall, not the community, will have decided what level of service needs to be provided and it will monitor and step in if necessary, in exactly the same way as every other contract it has, from refuse collection to home-help.

And the alternative? In a lot of cases we can let failure happen. There are some places we must strive to avoid any failure (child protection is an obvious example) but in the vast majority it will not be the end of anyone’s world, an inconvenience to some, perhaps, but not so much that it worth limiting everyone else’s potential.

Indeed, in many cases the failure is relative. When posting about Reinventing Government I touched on an example that achieved a huge amount in tackling crime and unemployment before ‘failing’. And surely part of the trust in giving people power to run their own services includes giving them the power to make mistakes, get things wrong and learn from the experience. In the words of one person at one of the meetings: “I run a successful business, because I’ve learnt from running unsuccessful businesses.” It will be the same with the Big Society, if we dare let it happen.

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  1. Excellent post James. If only we could get this thinking into the public sector consciousness. There is no failure in an absolute sense, only learning. Not everything thing succeeds. Many good things are not perfect and some don’t sustain themselves. Big Society effort is organic and will reflect the order of the natural world of which we are a part. Failure is natural and we need to accept it when it happens, learn from it and move on to something better. It is part of being responsible for ourselves and our community. Failure is essential for growth and maturity. Do we have the courage to do this?

  2. To accept both failure and success, we’re going to have to transform the notion of fairness. Seems to me, for too long, fairness has been about a uniformly mediocre level of service which only a highly regimented state can guarantee (and even this is merely a notional reality).. Big Society will mean that some people will have an amazing experience, some will be ok – and as you’ve indicated some will have an experience of fail. I reckon that people are as afraid of success as they are of failure – because it means there will be an inevitable and noticeable unevenness.