Hmmm, the Big Society - it’s a troubling issue isn’t it? It’s struggled to gain a foothold in the public’s consciousness. If the Clapham Omnibus still exists, you can be sure it isn’t full of lively chatter about the latest developments in the Big Society agenda. Politicians and policy makers have continuing difficulty in explaining what it is. And it seems to have become tainted by its link to a stronger government narrative on austerity, deficit reduction and public spending cuts.
It doesn’t seem to get much of a mention in ministerial speeches anymore. There were rumours of bets being taken on whether the phrase would appear at all in the Coalition’s recently launched ‘Mid-Term Review’. It did…but only four times. Where Big Society is mentioned it is now usually in pretty defensive terms, especially compared to its much more confident expression in the Spring and Summer of 2010. An example is the Minister for Civil Society Nick Hurd’s recent letter to Sir Stephen Bubb of ACEVO, setting out the Coalition’s practical achievements in pursuing the Big Society vision.
Arguably the underlying policy agenda remains - smaller government, public services opened to market competition, decentralisation and promoting social action - even if the language of the Big Society fades somewhat. Meanwhile politicians have to live and work in the messy real world of mediated political discussion, and here the Big Society has really suffered. A new TSRC working paper,
drawing upon data from the long term qualitative ‘Real Times’ study of third sector organisations and activities, provides some clues as to why has it struggled to gain traction.
It argues that other narratives have taken hold, providing immediate and more compelling responses to the Big Society whenever it is mentioned. These counter-narratives include, for example,
- the challenge of everyday life (given work and family commitments, many people are time stretched and too busy to get involved or take responsibility for local activities);
- not so new (the Big Society is what the third sector and communities do anyway up and down the country) and
- a contradiction (in the face of spending cuts on the voluntary sector).
In an echo of other findings, most notably the recent Big Society Audit
, the paper reveals overwhelming scepticism to the idea of the Big Society amongst respondents in the Real Times study. Whilst they also saw opportunities within the agenda and sought to ‘position’ their organisations in light of the Big Society, the research found very few unequivocally positive comments, suggesting more of an instrumental rather than committed engagement with the agenda.
Politicians and policy makers are often exhorted to set out clear visions for the direction of society. A lesson from the experience of the Big Society is that they should tread carefully. They might be wise to spend time developing narratives in ways which make sense in everyday life and at the frontline. If stories fail to offer compelling, resonant and realistic scenarios, they are in danger of being derided, dismissed or ignored.