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Neil O'Brien: If David Cameron wants the Big Society to be his big idea, it needs to be better defined - and more conservative

O'BRIEN-NEIL Neil O'Brien is Director of Policy Exchange.

“The really good thing about the Big Society,” a fellow think-tanker told me last week in Birmingham, “is that it can mean absolutely whatever anyone wants it to mean.  It’s totally brilliant.” This assessment, made in the wee small hours, is a far too harsh.  But there is a lack of clarity about the “Big Society” that won’t do, if it is going to be the Tories' Big Idea.

Some people think that governments don’t need to have a big guiding idea.  Just be successful managers and try to deliver what people want.  There’s a grain of truth in that.  But I think governments need a guiding spirit for two reasons. 

Firstly, governments tend to lose support if they don’t seem to have a clear sense of direction.  As Harold Wilson pointed out, unless you drive the bus really fast, everybody gets out and starts bickering about where to go. Cameron needs to enthuse his own activists.  The number of Tory party members is apparently falling.  Journalists like Jonathan Freedland argue that the Big Society isn’t well liked by Tory members.  I think it sort of is, but needs more work.  The importance of the “little platoons” is a pretty central idea in conservatism (it dates from at least 1790). But Cameron needs to put a more conservative spin on it if he wants it to really fire up his activists.

Secondly, a guiding philosophy is part of how Prime Ministers get what they want in Government.  The notion that we have a presidential system in the UK is, I think, misguided.  Downing Street has a lot of influence, but little control.  The PM can block bad ideas.  But he can’t run every department and be everywhere.  So to drive their work forward, he needs to enunciate a clear sense of direction.  Margaret Thatcher is the best example of this.  Though not a supreme bureaucrat, she radiated a totally clear sense of direction.  Officials and ministers who wondered “What would Margaret want as to do?” instantly knew the answer, without having to ask her.

The Big Society isn’t really fulfilling these functions for Cameron yet, hence his conference speech last week.

Let’s rewind for a moment.  Before the “Big Society” Cameron talked a lot about the “broken society.”  Voters (and particularly Tories) and were energised by this.  They could readily relate it to their concerns:  welfare dependency, family breakdown, crime and antisocial behaviour, and a general lack of “community spirit” compared to earlier decades.  Cameron spoke about how he wanted to be “as big a social reformer” as Thatcher had been an economic reformer.

The Big Society is supposed to be the solution to the broken society.  But there is something about the phrase that has left people unclear.  This is a real shame for Cameron, as it seems to be his very deepest conviction. Perhaps he should make more time to explain it and set out some themes.  Here’s my take on what the Big Society is, or should be:

1) Strengthening charity and voluntary action
This theme is partly about getting rid of the rules and regulations which stifle civic society.  Lord Young has proposed ways to reform the burdensome mass of vetting, bureaucracy and health and safety rules which grind down individual initiative.  It’s also about generally encouraging a culture of volunteering, as with initiatives like national citizen service, and the Big Society network of social activists.

Some ways in which volunteers might serve our society are very close to hearts of Tory activists.  For instance, I detect that this government wants to reverse the collapse in the number of Special Constables.  In a recent speech at Policy Exchange Nick Herbert noted that “In the 1950s there were 67,000 Special Constables – nearly five times the number today.” Reversing this would be a big step forward for the big society.  That would be great.  Take another example.  In a recent paper former SAS commander Richard Williams suggested that the defence review should radically increase - not decrease - the size and role of the Territorial Army and reserve forces. There’s no more profound way in which people can volunteer to serve our society than this.

It is also about opening up wholly new opportunities for these groups to provide services.  Instead of closing that library, why not hand it over to volunteers who can keep it open?  At present, even where public services are supposed to be open to competition from charities, in practice they are often locked out by complicated procurement processes, (“simply fill out this 5,000 page form...”) and also by perverse rules.  For example, we recently found that voluntary adoption agencies are discriminated against by an outdated financing formula – even though they are five times more successful at permanently placing kids than local authorities are.

2) Across the board welfare reform
We have five to six million people of working age living on out of work benefits – nearly one in ten people.  Quite apart from the £90 billion a year this costs us, worklessness is the root cause of the broken society, crime and disorder.  Ironically the working class are the big losers from the creation of a non-working class.

IDS is simplifying the cash benefits system.  That’s a massive task in itself, but sadly it is only one part of an ever bigger challenge.  To end the welfare-culture the coalition also needs to push on with some other big reforms at the same time.  Firstly this means sorting out social housing.  People who live in social housing are 20% less likely to work than identical people who don’t, because of the terrible incentives it creates to become - and remain - dependent.  We need to end the so-called “needs based” allocation of council housing introduced in the 1970s.  Secondly, it means making a reality of the principle that people who can work, must work.  This is far from the case at present, and it will not be easy to achieve. We are a long way away from the kind of clear, fair, tough approach that got 90% of people off benefits in Wisconsin.  Diversion, triage, and time limits are alien concepts in our welfare system.  Lastly, Cameron shouldn’t let bureaucrats kill of his good ideas like the right to move for people in council houses.  Done properly, it would allow people to move to find work, and break up sink estates, and we already know that it works from a project in York.  Ministers shouldn’t let civil servants dust off Labour’s failed old “homeswap” plans and present them as new.

3) Efforts to stem family breakdown
The Cameroons are not nostalgics, dreaming of some return to a cute Frank Capra-style 1950s family life.  But I think they are right that family breakdown, teen pregnancy and the number of kids in care should be the concern of politicians. Reducing the demand for government is vital.  They also know that a tax credit here, and a benefit there, won’t fix these big problems. 

I don’t think the government yet has the all answers to these challenges.  But they are listening to the right people.  The most important speech of Tory conference was by Geoffrey Canada, the utterly awesome and inspirational founder of Harlem Children’s Action Zone.  His approach – based on parenting classes and support for young parents - has achieved things which no-one ever thought possible in one of the most broken parts of America.  My gut instinct is that the answer is this kind of education - plus changing the incentives in welfare and social housing - that will achieve the results Cameron wants.  I quite support financial incentives for marriage, but on their own they aren’t going to make that big a dent in the problem.
One part of the jigsaw should be the reform of the Child Support Agency.  The Tories introduced it to make absent dads pay for single parents benefits.  But bureaucracy foiled it, and Labour has changed it into a vehicle to hit its child poverty target.  I think we could learn something from the US here.  When fathers on benefits abandon their partners and children, the sanction should not be taking a mere fiver a week off their benefits as at present - but forcing them to work and pay for their children.

4) Freeing public services from the government
At the moment the government spends nearly half our national income.  This makes it a huge part of our national life (far too big).  But public services barely involve civic society at all.  Can you name the members of your PCT or your police authority?  I certainly can’t.

Michael Gove’s school choice will start put control in the hands of parents, rather than local authorities.  Elected police commissioners will get the cops focussed on our priorities, rather than sucking up in Westminster.  GP and hospital choice ditto.  Local government is being set free from the spiderweb of a billion targets which Labour used to turn it into a branch office of Whitehall. 

Encouraging competition from outside the public sector is a big part of making public services more accountable, and there will be some areas like personal social services, rehabilitation and probation where the most likely competitors are going to be charities and voluntary groups, rather than big corporations.  We’ve already got some of that sort of thing going on in welfare to work services, but there are lots of opportunities to go further.  I can think of plenty of charities who do the work of job centres far more effectively than our depressing job centres do themselves.

But if we are going to make public services accountable we also need to set them free: free to hire and fire, free to reward effort and break from national pay bargaining - free from trade union intimidation. Francis Maude is making a start on civil service reform, but there is a way to go.  And the government has rarely connected these kinds of reforms with its attempts to build a “big society”.

To conclude: at present a lot of journalists think the big society is a big load of old guff.  I think they are wrong: there is a big and important idea here, struggling to get out.  I think Cameron needs to give his big idea more clarity, stress its practical nature, and make it more conservative-friendly.  Do you agree?


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