Whose agenda is it anyway? (via Julian Dobson)

This morning my local radio station did a piece about the Big Society in the North. Before they talked to me they did a vox pop in Chesterfield about whether people understood the idea of Big Society and what they thought about volunteering.

Some were suspicious or hadn’t a clue what it was all about, which is hardly surprising. Others pointed to their activity in sports clubs or social care and said, ‘this is Big Society’ – which is quite right.

But among both the general public and professionals in the voluntary sector, local councils and elsewhere, there still seems to be an assumption that this is all about responding to or criticising a government agenda. The complaints are that the government hasn’t made its ideas for the Big Society clear; that there isn’t government money to fund it; or that government wants us, the punters, to take over services like museums and hospitals.

Clearly we do have to respond to and try to influence government. But this is really about how we can set out own agendas.

Anyone who has been involved in community action for any length of time will tell you that governments should not be trusted. They claim to value empowerment, and then tell you how they want you to be empowered. They offer funding but with so many conditions you end up compromising what you really want to achieve; and then remove it under the guise of putting decision-making in local hands. We can’t leave it to the coalition government to develop the idea of a Big Society, because they’ll mess it up.

A new set of client relationships between voluntary and community organisations and the central or local state will not see us through hard times. While we must make the case for what we value, we need to start building the resilience and independence of people and organisations involved in social action.

In the 19th century the cooperative movement and the trade unions began without the support of government and against the active opposition of employers and local authorities. They grew not through funding streams and state benevolence but through the determination and contributions of their own members, who put their money where their mouth was.

Read more: http://livingwithrats.blogspot.com/2010/07/whose-agenda-is-it-anyway.html

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  1. Laura
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    Except….isn’t all the lobbying, discussion and agenda-setting supposed to take place between stakeholders and politicians *before* elections? Politicians constantly engage with what the public want through a variety of means, surgeries, local parties, trade unions, stakeholder mapping, consultation, letters, lobbying and THEN they write a manifesto.

    From these ‘manifestos’ the public can clearly decide whose agenda they most like and the one liked by most people wins. If, subsequently, politicians fail to deliver that agenda they are booted out. Or, if they deliver and their manifesto remains representative of what people want, they can stay in.

    Big Society seems to be suggesting some kind of ‘post-hoc’ version of this system where a government is voted in on, what, competence? charisma? This government then casts about looking for policies from those who (a) shout the loudest (usually meaning they have the most money, or (b) agree with their ideology (although these can be conveniently hidden from view during elections because parties will no longer be held accountable for delivering on their manifesto). This doesn’t seem to give any greater voice to the voluntary sector, it just comes at a different point in the process and in doing so reduces the accountability to government for pursuing these policies in the first place (“but the doctors/teachers/charity-workers told me to do it!”)

    Alternatively, I may be reading this Big Society thing the wrong way, because your blog reads as though politicians are generally rubbish and get in the way of all action regardless of party. Hence, voluntary organisations and social enterprises engage ‘directly with the people’ and cut out government altogether. If that’s the case why is Big Society a ‘government’ policy? Surely it’s involvement with politicians means it is doomed?! Or….. and here’s the bigger question….. if this isn’t about a new political synthesis as described above, is the Big Society just another name for a hundred year tradition of UK grass-roots philanthropic activity?

  2. Posted July 27, 2010 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    Hi Laura

    Thanks for your comment. I don’t think politicians are generally rubbish, but I do think their involvement tends to be unhelpful.

    You make the point about agendas being discussed and set before elections. Most of them aren’t – the manifestos quickly get overtaken by events. In the case of the coalition government that was very quick indeed. The idea of the Big Society was sketched out – and it was sketchy – by David Cameron in various newspaper articles and speeches before the election. My point is that if this is the way in which social action is now being discussed, we need to make sure it’s rooted in the realities of the work that is already going on within communities.

    So your last point is correct – it is just another label, to some degree. Let’s make sure that whatever label is used, it’s used to support activity we think is worthwhile.