How does local government join the Big Society?

The government has been very clear in its vision that a smaller state is needed to liberate society. But how should local government adapt in order to interact with the Big Society?
Simon Burall
22 September 2010

The government has been very clear in its vision that a smaller state is needed to liberate society, but less clear on what role local government should play in empowering communities. In a contribution to OK's debate on the Big Society Challenge, Simon Burall asks how local government can adapt in order to unlock civic life.

It’s really hard right now to start a conversation about the role of the state without being pigeonholed. This is for many reasons, but one is obvious; the debate about the role of government is polarised and the sides are moving further apart. On the one hand there are those who are deeply suspicious that the Big Society is merely a fig leaf for an ideologically driven assault on the state. On the other the government has been very clear in its vision that a smaller state is needed to liberate society.

If we are serious about the Big Society, however, I believe we have to talk about government – a lot. In this post I want to confine myself to one issue which has been bothering me for a while; how does local government adapt in order to interact with the Big Society?

The previous model for the interaction between government and citizens, in gross simplification, was clear; we government decide what issue to address. We identify the community affected and invite them into our consultations to ask our questions. When we get it right, we give real time and space for citizens to discuss the issues. We take away what has been said and combine this with all the other evidence relating to the issue. We then make our decision and implement it.

The new model, in gross simplification, also seems quite clear; government deliberately steps back to give citizens the space to identify and develop solutions to the problems that really concern them. In the parodies of this position this is all that government does. However, Nat Wei and others see a role for the state, just one that is very different to how many of us think about it now.

This new Big Society model, like the old model, presents its own set of challenges for local government. In the rest of this post I want to explore some of the issues facing government as it tries to interact with the Big Society.

  • We know who’s worried about this. How does local government stop itself only listening to the most vocal? Discussions that are happening within the Big Society are going to be happening outside spaces created by government. Some of these spaces may be very visible – the local save the maternity ward campaign, for example. However, others may be far less visible to those who work in government – a new childcare circle set-up by a group of parents to support peers trying to get back to work. People in both of these sets of spaces will be talking about the closure of the maternity ward: the challenge for government is how it even begins to identify the second type of space, let alone listen to what is being said within it as it makes its decision.
  • I’ve got more important things to do. Are council officers authorised, empowered and, crucially, incentivised to listen? Some of the groups that are currently ‘invisible’ may well be organising on Facebook, communicating by twitter or blogging in a corner of the web that the council hasn’t visited yet. Firewalls are coming down relatively quickly now, so for many this is one barrier that has gone. However, officers have lots to do already – and jobs are going to be lost as the cuts bite. How will local government find out what the public thinks about critical issues? How can it choose strategically what, and who, it should be listening to online?

    This isn’t all about new media of course; will work in the evenings to attend those local group manifestations of the Big Society be recognised and rewarded for engaging with what residents think?

    This type of work, whether on or off-line, is much less structured and provides far fewer tangible outputs than writing this policy or that report. How will staff appraisal work? What changes need to be made to management, HR and internal incentives to ensure that councils can still hear citizens?
  • But you’re just wrong. Whether it is about the level of savings made or the number of staff to be made redundant, it is inevitable that Big Society groups will sometimes be misinformed. Traditional media remains important, but won’t reach everyone; press releases are unlikely to help government build the types of relationships that will be required as the Big Society grows in size, depth and complexity.

    The challenge for councils as they try to navigate these uninvited spaces is how they can intervene in a light-touch way that builds, rather than reduces, trust. What could appear more Orwellian to citizens than an online conversation being interrupted by a previously invisible council officer correcting a fact or figure in very formal terms and then disappearing? Public officials are going to have to enter into a dialogue throughout the conversation rather than with the aim of getting the council’s point of view across. How can this happen when all but the most senior have to stick to the agreed message and therefore find it impossible to inject their own personality into the conversation?
  • That’s a great idea; how can we get involved? Once the Big Society has identified something it wants to do, it might become apparent that this supports the council’s aims directly, or that some additional help could really improve the idea and make its implementation easier for everyone. In a world where government has stepped back, how does it step forwards again without filling the space and squashing nascent citizen energy? What models of partnership and ways of working are there that might help ensure that residents don’t feel pushed out by ‘big’ government moving back in? Can government identify other partners who might be able to offer assistance? How does it structure itself to play a very different role, one of catalyst and broker?

In this (relatively) short post I can’t do more than touch the surface of the profound issues that the Big Society raises for local government. Lots more thought needs to go into what the role of elected representatives is in this new model of problem solving, for example. Huge questions are raised, and have already been raised by some, about how government can manage resource allocation across different areas. How can local government be strategic? What does it do if the Big Society doesn’t seem interested in issues that affect particular parts of the community which, for whatever reasons, can’t help themselves?

To avoid talking about the role of government because it reinforces ideological divisions rather than creating new understandings seems wrong. To avoid talking about government because we don’t ‘do government any more’ is worse. If there is one thing we know about cutting public budgets, it is that it is one of the fastest ways to get people engaged. Local government needs all the help it can get in figuring out how to listen to, intervene in, respond to and work with the Big Society. Otherwise the Angry Society predicted by many will fill its place. 

You can read more of OurKingdom's Big Society debate here.

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