The (re-)launch of the Big Society this week conformed to the overly-frantic approach to policy development adopted by the Coalition since May. Like many of its policy initiatives, the Big Society has divided opinion. David Cameron presents the Big Society as part of a necessary rebalancing of the relationship between citizens and the state by empowering communities, reforming public services and drawing on innovation and efficiencies within the third sector. Others believe it is simply an ideologically-driven smokescreen for further cuts, forcing citizens to compensate for the withdrawal of the state. The Big Society is therefore seen merely as an attempt to legitimate the most significant un-negotiated repeal of citizens’ social rights in the post-war period.
Whilst there are aspects of the Big Society which could prove innovative, particularly the expansion of cooperatives and mutualisation, claims from Cameron about its radical and innovative nature are open to question. Much of what has been identified as integral and innovative in the Big Society have their origins in the renegotiation of citizenship begun under New Labour – ‘Blairite dressing’ as described by David Davis – and also draws on ideas and initiatives from the United States and elsewhere.
Cameron has been particularly keen to promote the National Citizen Service (NCS) as a vanguard programme that will ‘sow the seeds’ of the Big Society. His belief in the potential for a short period of universal but non-compulsory non-military civic service is strongly influenced by his own experiences in the cadet forces at Eton. But, as I have noted elsewhere, questions persist as to the efficacy of the NCS programme. Not only is it largely unproven, but analysis of pilot programmes raise doubts as to their potential for those young people from disadvantaged and isolated communities.
There are also questions about the purpose of the NCS programme and its cost. Its focus is clearly on volunteering as a form of civil activism that, it is believed, will stimulate more participative forms of life-long citizenship. Emphasis is clearly placed on the civil rather than the civic, with few clear opportunities to encourage deliberation or democratic participation which is taken as a given by-product of such programmes. Costs are estimated to be about £50m over two years but this could rise significantly if its ‘universal’ aspirations are realised and some already suggest it is too costly to last. There are also uncertainties regarding the ability of the ‘third sector’ to develop programmes of sufficient quality, particularly in an atmosphere whereby funding to youth services and training programmes are already being cut.
The £50 million funding for the two-year NCS pilot has been diverted from the much-maligned CLG component of the Preventing Violent Extremism (Prevent) programme which was part of the previous government’s wider counter-terrorism framework. Criticisms of Prevent have been widespread, highlighting its predominant focus on Muslims that also raised concerns as to the role of the programme as a vehicle for state surveillance.
Uncertainties were evident when considering how local authorities meshed Prevent with existing community cohesion initiatives at local and national level, and also their ability to develop coherent programmes that utilised public funds effectively . Some also expressed disquiet about the potential for some funds to be given to groups with links to extremists. A DCLG select committee also questioned the failure for the Prevent programme to meet its stated educational aims, with those responsible often avoiding the discussion of contentious issues in favour of well-intentioned but diversionary youth community activities.
The Coalition’s decision to divert money from the DCLG Prevent budget to fund the NCS is founded in a belief that it will develop community cohesion. In launching NCS, Cameron asserted it would ‘mix young people from different backgrounds, different ethnicities and religions, in a way that doesn’t happen right now’. The Conservatives appear to invest considerable faith that NCS will alter the views of young people in segregated and socially stratified communities whose attitudes were often the result of life-long experiences of poverty, poor education and self-exclusion.
Initiatives such as the NCS belie a faith in an organic view of society whereby citizens and communities cohere through voluntarism and participation, thus enhancing a sense of belonging that leads to greater civic participation. This view de-emphasises the importance of disparities in wealth and life-opportunities in shaping attitudes to citizenship and community.
But although many of the criticisms of Prevent are valid, its dismantling overlooks the success of the programme in recognising that some anxieties regarding extremism and immigration required local government to intervene to foster better relations with disengaged communities. Many local authorities learnt from initial experiences and were beginning to undertake innovative work to resolve such shortcomings. For example, the singular focus on Muslim communities was rejected in favour of more holistic initiatives that recognised the extent to which extremism influenced other communities, particularly disadvantaged white communities. Local authorities and other actors within isolated communities were developing new pathways to stimulate better inter-community communication which enhanced understanding, interaction, trust and belonging.
Prevent had begun to realise some of the benefits of pain-staking work by community and youth workers to develop structures and trust that supported that creation of civil society and social capital in such communities. Trust in this context is not established overnight but the rewards are significant. This engagement of ‘difficult to reach’ communities should be seen as the first tentative steps towards developing the rich ties of citizenship already prevalent elsewhere.
The building of civil society in some Muslim communities provided the potential for more sustained and significant inter-faith dialogue to develop understanding and foster greater cohesion. As those involved with Prevent became more experienced, discussion of causes and impact of violent extremism, together with issues of identity, citizenship and belonging, were beginning to supplement other cohesion-building activities.
Prevent, though still flawed in its operationalisation, had the potential to complement other community cohesion strategies supporting voluntarism and trust through civil activism by highlighting the importance of political debate and democratic participation in disadvantaged communities. NCS on the other hand is devoid of such emphasis on political engagement and debate. Its focus on the civil rather than the civic could undermine the progress made in training activists to engage in such important but difficult deliberations.
This unravelling of structures that had made strong links in difficult to reach communities could prove costly though not necessarily in fiscal terms alone. It is ironic that the running down of Prevent and the use of its funds for Big Society initiatives overlook the extent to which the former meets the criteria of the latter. The introduction of Prevent was founded in a beliefthat local government and communities could provide effective solutions to the challenge of violent extremism.
The Coalition’s faith in NCS is indicative of the contradictions at the heart of a government who appear to be transfixed by an apparent self-loathing whereby the state is seen as a barrier to the innovative provision of public services. In line with such thinking, NCS appears to favour running down local government-run youth services and programmes such as Prevent, thus sidelining local expertise. Instead, NCS will be often provided through generic programmes offered by ‘independent’ providers such as Shaftesbury Partnership - run by recently-appointed Conservative peer and Big Society advisor Nat Wei. Such programmes are well-intentioned but will not serve all the needs of those who were the focus of Prevent.
Many of those who will benefit most from NCS will already express high-levels of community cohesion. The avoidance of political citizenship and opportunity to debate contentious issues will be keenly felt in communities where young people were just beginning to find their voice. It is doubtful that NCS will be able to replace such forums and attract young people from a diverse range of backgrounds onto the programme and ensure they continued to mix afterwards. Some parents will be concerned about the residential parts of the NCS, particularly those from some faith communities.
The latest Citizenship Survey suggests that levels of community cohesion are generally good, with 85 per cent of people saying their local community was cohesive and a place where people from different backgrounds got on well together. It is clear though that there are tensions and concerns within and between some communities that need to acknowledged and addressed in a strategic and sustainable manner. The NCS - in its proposed form - is unlikely to significantly build community cohesion in a cost-effective or inclusive manner. Although Prevent was flawed in its aims and implementation, there were positive elements that could have been factored into new youth initiatives. If the government is keen to promote good citizenship to build its Big Society, it would be more appropriate to invest time and available resources in strengthening citizenship education in schools.
The impact of citizenship education in schools is growing with each year as it beds into the national curriculum, though there are still problems with its delivery in some schools which are often linked to lack of resources such as trained teachers. It is both compulsory and universal, providing opportunities (where taught well) for young people develop an appreciation of community cohesion through class-based learning and participation in their schools and communities. But its place in the curriculum is uncertain, with leading Conservatives such as Michael Goveharbouring suspicions that it is simply state-sponsored political indoctrination. There is concern that the Conservatives will seek to dismantle much of this good cohesion-building work evident in many schools, particularly as the current approach of the Coalition towards policy formulation appears to be led by an ideologically-informed nihilism which seeks to throw the baby out with the bathwater at every opportunity.
You can read more of OurKingdom's Big Society debate here.