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Francis Davis: The Big Society should be the means by which people reclaim duties and rights stolen from them by overwhelming bureaucracies

Picture 1 Francis Davis is an academic and social entrepreneur. He is currently preparing a special edition of the leading journal Public Money and Management themed ‘The Big Society and Decentralisation – A Critical Assessment ’.

With the greatest respect, if you think the Big Society is a political sideshow or gimmick you need to get out more. Inflexible bureaucracies are among the most dangerous of human inventions. The best way to resist them is with a rich weave of civil society institutions, including open markets. That and the development of a new generation of politicians who have had a civic life in business or charities before seeking a seat.

Britons get this instinctively when they are not presented with the unconvinced pitching the half-embraced on campaigning doorsteps: On Lambeth Council volunteers and Conservative councillors once broke a strike intended to maintain “totting” (the right for bin men to treat council refuse as a source of potential goods to sell for personal gain). Led by Sir George Young, they became rubbish collectors just as volunteers resist blockages today to extend their local library opening hours in Hampshire, save their lido in Devon or Sussex, join the Territorial Army in Kent, or scramble to sea as lifeboatmen in Cornwall; just as Helen Suzman bravely resisted illegal detentions in South Africa and Ang Sang Suu Kyi resists kleptocratic Generals in Asia.

And if you are Jewish, a Bosnian Muslim or know something of China’s termination of unborn daughters, you will need no convincing as to how much evil a dictatorial bureaucracy can impose. And, yes, on the doorstep voters like to meet convinced candidates from all these walks of life who have had a few civic successes and personal failures or anguish - and still kept going.

The Big Society should be the means by which people reclaim duties and rights stolen from them by overwhelming bureaucracies. The cross-Whitehall Minister for Decentralisation, Greg Clark MP, has rightly called it a radical direction.

It has potential for the arts, rural affairs, for the MOD and especially for William Hague’s FCO. The Home Office under Ken Clarke is already ordering all its work in a ‘Big Society’ direction.  Eric Pickles and Greg Clark are  “turning DCLG upside down” to liberate charities. Andrew Lansley is only at the front end of a journey which ought rightly to see the increasing nation-wide civic ownership of NHS property assets as well as access to its purchasing patterns. We need “free hospitals” even more urgently than “free schools.”

And lest we think all parties should not join the crusade let us recall that John Lewis Snr first tried employee engagement under the Campbell Bannerman Liberal Cabinet while Liberals founded Friends of the Earth, sharing offices with the Tory Reform Group  and Frank Field’s Child Poverty Action Group. Steve Hilton needs to drive this home: Number 10 needs to publish a civic innovation report each year to encourage absolute transparency on how departments are doing.

But as the state is transformed the chance to return initiative to society from bureaucracy ought to go further in-house too: Andrew Mitchell’s project Umubano is entirely laudable and so is the fundraising that has enabled electoral candidates to be exposed to social action. However its ethic ought now to be given more powerful legs by the creation of a new foundation linked to the Conservative Party, and another one linked to the Liberal Democrats. Both should have a global brief. They would act as strategic philanthropic investors in parts of the world where freedom or civic action are vulnerable.

They could learn from the outstanding German Konrad Adenauer Foundation or its Liberal equivalent, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. Like venture capital funds, they would have few staff so to keep them lean and responsive and less Quango-like than the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. They would become international hubs around which fresh talent, networks and insights could be gathered. Indeed, they would have a particular responsibility to embed a civic action culture in the next generation of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats so re-establishing an old social norm that future politicians had a life outside the ‘game’ before daring to offer themselves for political service - an old social norm that voters appreciated which would also protect from an addiction to ‘policy’ for everything.

If led with energy, these foundations would be test beds that other parties would be ‘nudged’ to emulate just as the Milliband brothers have embraced ‘community organising’ in the footsteps of David Cameron.

The Big Society should be a non-partisan national export. An outlook that flows from deep British instincts to rally round in times of need - and embrace entrepreneurship at times of opportunity. The Government in general, and the FCO in particular, ought to be at the forefront here – and its constituent parties ought to go further still to change the culture of our politicians for generations. The Prime Minister knows that inflexible bureaucracies are among the most dangerous of human inventions. If we do not see that we do need to get out more.


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