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.

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.

Yet more democracy in action last night at the Environment, Culture and Community Safety OSC.

I was there for the community safety and town centre parts of the meeting which come under my portfolio. In many ways it was a relatively straightforward meeting. There wasn’t anything particularly contentious on the agenda, although as the deficit is addressed I’m sure that is to come. The full agenda is on the council’s website (which does work from time to time, I promise you) but to give a few selected highlights.

10-646 Domestic Violence Strategy
Domestic violence is woefully under-reported and, unlike most crimes, almost all victims are repeat victims. The problem is that domestic violence and abuse often take place in situations that are hard to leave, perhaps because they are in the home, and the victim has nowhere else to go, or it might be that children are involved. In many cases there is a feeling of shame or embarrassment, particularly where the situation doesn’t fit the stereotypical man abusing woman scenario (one of the specific areas of focus are abuse in LGBT relationships).

10-647 Community Safety Division – Annual Quality and Performance Review
This is one of those monster reports that covers everything (each service produces one of these a year), but worth dipping into if you are interested in the sorts of things the council does to make Wandsworth safer.

This prompted a lot of discussion on Neighbourhood Watch (NW), which is one of my pet subjects because I think NW has such great potential and is one of the policy priorities for the coming years. We’re trying to see how we can expand the benefits of NW into hard-to-reach areas, for example council estates have traditionally had much poorer coverage, but also to see how we can create networks of watches and whether we can help in strengthening communities.

Of course, one of the problems with this is that it is uncharted territory. Wandsworth is something of a leader in this field and it’s difficult to know what will and won’t work. It’s a subject that I’ve touched on before, that to develop and improve you often have to accept that your experiments may end in failure, which is not something that sits well in politics. While exciting, I won’t pretend that I don’t have the occasional worry!

10-649 Policing in the 21st Century
This is the council’s response to the government’s white paper. It is generally supportive, although one of the biggest parts of the proposed reforms, directly elected police commissioners, will not affect London as the Mayor would take on that role.

The Labour group voted against this, disagreeing with the abolition of the Metropolitan Police Authority (a better reason than disliking the title of a white paper which they said they largely agreed) and I’m wondering if there’s a degree of oppositional politics starting to return. It is an unusual time for all tiers of government – national, London and Wandsworth to be (largely) politically aligned. It hasn’t happened for 13 years, and then probably only because there was no London government!

10-651 Petition – request for CCTV installation in the area of Leverson Street
This was the council’s response to a petition asking for CCTV to be installed in what is seen as a trouble black spot.

The council rejected this. For me there is a big issue about installing CCTV in primarily residential areas. As a matter of principal it feels wrong to me to have these areas surveilled. However, there are also practical concerns.

CCTV works well in areas where the problem is ‘contained’. So, for example, CCTV in town centre areas can help deter problems (or justify prosecutions, about half of all cases the local police bring use CCTV evidence) that are specific to that sort of area, for example issues around disorder or theft. When dealing with anti-social behaviour problems these can easily relocate, there is little difference between street-corners. In effect the problem is moved, not solved.

And that is the second problem, very often these problems are much better tackled by joint work between the police, council and (frequently) social landlords. Together they are able to tackle those who create problems and divert those on the fringes. Temporary, mobile, CCTV can be effective in gathering evidence for this. Personally I think we’re much better off going for a solution than seeing CCTV as a panacea – it never has been.

10-655 Town Centre Management – Annual review
The council’s approach to town centres has been one of the real success stories of Wandsworth, and has helped the borough avoid the problems faced by so many of having a single, fairly soulless, shopping destination and then nothing but residential areas with little focus.

The paper details some of the activity that has been taking place in each town centre to support, enhance and promote the businesses that are there. It’s split into sections of the five town centres so worth having a browse to see what’s been happening in your local centre.

Labour voted against this (disappointingly, I have to say). They felt that we should be putting equal support in for all shopping areas. The problem with that approach is that if you focus on everything you actually focus on nothing.

It’s also the case that we put a lot of support in to the ‘secondary’ shopping areas. Indeed, I’m meeting with a collection of the business associations representing them tonight to talk about how they and the council can work together. But increasingly we are seeing these areas, along with their local residents, developing their own initiatives (with some support from the council), Southfields and Battersea Square both being success stories of combined resident/business associations. It’s that sort of work we need to support and not applying a one-size fits all town centre management everywhere.