« Shale gas: Good news for Europe, bad news for Putin | Main | Whatever happened to the Eurozone crisis? »

Social justice
25 January 2013

Heresy of the week: The Big Society leaves no room for the little platoons

Danny Kruger used to be a speechwriter for David Cameron. One day he decided that actions spoke louder than words and left politics behind to run a charity called Only Connect. It is, therefore, with the benefit of real experience that he writes for the Financial Times, with a dispatch from the frontline of the big society.

Note that’s ‘big society’ not ‘Big Society’: the latter – distinguished by the unfortunate initials ‘B’ and ‘S’ – was a political slogan, and like all such phrases had its day before making way for the next one; the former, on the other hand, signifies something of real importance:

  • “The proper meaning of ‘revolution’ is a return to a previous order. David Cameron’s campaign to transfer power and responsibility from state to society is revolutionary. Schools are being forcibly naturalised, like colonials after decolonisation, who served a distant king but now belong to the country they inhabit.”

The idea of decolonising the public sphere – of replacing the monolithic empire of the top-down, bureaucratic state with a variety of smaller, more local, actors – is an attractive one. It is not, however, without its challenges:

  • “Small social organisations (and I speak as the boss of one) are also often poor at management, finance, accountability and evaluation. We can suffer from constant staff changes, weak balance sheets and the lack of codified practice. Being tiny, how can we work on the scale needed by government?”

This is the central problem of the big society and, so far, the solutions are incomplete:

  • “One answer is the 'prime' model, by which a lead provider, often a big company, does the deal with government and subcontracts the frontline work to smaller specialists. This model gives leadership and accountability to the contract; it also, as we have seen with Mr Duncan Smith’s Work Programme, pushes risk down the supply chain and keeps the margins at the top.
  • “The alternative is the consortium, which tries to bring small organisations together in a joint venture. The result is a weak centre, endless infighting and multiple rigid contracts in which the weakest member pulls down the rest.”

Some within the voluntary sector call for greater government investment in the capacity of voluntary organisations to cope with this contractual environment. 

But isn’t this missing the point? Instead of paying charities to emulate the bureaucratic organs of the state, government should rethink the way it delivers public services. The Free Schools programme provides an example of the right approach – localising delivery right down to the front line.

Unfortunately, in other areas, reform is proceeding along very different lines. Huge, regional contracts, for instance, will ensure that the only non-state organisations able to bid for them are big, private-sector companies that specialise in lowering the overheads on existing approaches – and not the smaller, more innovative organisations (whether public, private or voluntary) that could make the real breakthroughs. 

We should not forget that the greatest enterprises of our time – for instance, companies like Apple or Tesco – started small and built themselves up into the giants they are today. But imagine if they’d been subject to a system that had forced them to start big or not at all. What do you think that would have done for commercial innovation?

The danger is this is exactly what we will do to social innovation if the Big Society doesn’t make more room for the little platoons.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.

Register to get The Deep End delivered to your inbox.