Growing the Big Society
This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Transcript of the speech as delivered. Introduction The Big Society is a big idea, but what it comes down to is this: Our answer to collectivism…
Transcript of the speech as delivered.
The Big Society is a big idea, but what it comes down to is this:
Our answer to collectivism isn’t just individualism.
As human beings, it is in our nature to join together to achieve common goals.
There are two ways in which this joining can work:
From the top-down, through hierarchy mediated by bureaucracy - and which invades civil society by sucking everything towards itself in the name of “stakeholding.”
Or from the bottom-up, through diverse forms of self-organisation.
The former is what defines socialism.
The latter is what defines conservatism - and, for that matter, liberalism.
The three strands
Last week, in Liverpool, David Cameron unpacked this basic idea.
The Big Society, he said, consists of three strands:
Firstly, public sector reform.
Secondly, community empowerment.
And thirdly, philanthropic action.
Though these strands are intertwined, they are also distinct:
The first is about what the state can do for us.
The second is about what we can do for ourselves.
And the third is about what we can do for others.
All three are essential to the Big Society.
For instance, public services can either be delivered in a way that increases dependency and undermines pro-social behaviour, or the state can intervene in order to strengthen the ability of people to look after themselves and others.
Alongside the traditional public services, we also need a much clearer concept of communities of shared interest, which act together in their own way to achieve those interests. Local councils are an obvious example, but there are many more beyond the state, including voluntary organisations, faith communities, friendly societies, co-operatives and social enterprises. The more we get away from the idea of a single source of help, delivered by a unitary state, ruling over a monolithic public sector, the closer we will get to a Big Society.
Finally there is the third strand, which is the grace of undiluted altruism - as delivered by charities, social enterprises, volunteers and givers of all descriptions. This is the purest expression of the Big Society, and so in our enthusiasm to reform our public services and empower strong communities, it is vital that we don’t overlook the blessing of selfless philanthropy.
The three methods
As well as this three-fold explanation of what the Big Society is, the Prime Minister also set out the three basic methods by which government can act to build it up:
These are decentralisation, transparency and a third category that I’m going to refer to as social finance.
Again, these are intertwined, but also readily distinguished.
Transparency is about the redistribution of knowledge: The state must stop withholding information that would allow a much wider range of actors to identify social needs and propose new ways of meeting them.
Social finance is about the redistribution of money and other assets. Instead of passing down through layers of absorbent bureaucracy, public funds should get straight through to wherever and whoever can use them most effectively. This means contestable contracts, payment by results and a revolution in the availability of upfront investment for social purposes. It also means communities having the right to save, run and own buildings and other under-used assets for social purposes when they could do that job best.
Of course, there’s no point in making information and funding available to new providers of social goods, if they aren’t allowed to use them in new ways. Thus the third and most fundamental building block of the Big Society is decentralisation, which is, of course, about the redistribution of power.
The turning tide
As minister for decentralisation, it is the issue of power that I’m going to focus on today, though no doubt knowledge and money will come into it too.
I’m going to start off with the commonly-made observation that Britain is one of the most centralised countries in the democratic world.
The political culture of this country has been shaped by successive waves of centralisation:
Not just in respect of the balance of power between central and local government, but also in the disempowerment of the professions in the public sector; and in the way that voluntary organisations have been pushed out of the provision of public services - despite the pivotal role they played in their creation.
However, the tide is turning.
The formation of the coalition government represents a genuinely new beginning, the significance of which goes well beyond a mere change in administration.
While the centralisation of power reached its apogee under Gordon Brown - the process did not begin with New Labour.
And though the failure of centralism was first understood on the centre-right of British politics, there are occasional signs of enlightenment on the centre-left too.
Indeed only this month a rueful Tony Blair conceded, “people want an empowering state, not a controlling state… government today has got to put the power in the hands of people… that’s not a slogan, it’s actually a demand from the public.”
Tony Blair headed a government where this was a key point of contention between its two constituent parts - the Blairites and the Brownites.
Today, we have another government of two constituent parts - the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
But, this time, localism is what most unites us.
So, for the first time in decades, the most powerful forces in British politics are aligned in favour of decentralisation.
So, that being the case, how do we proceed?
Well, I won’t be making a detailed policy presentation on this occasion - although I will in a series of speeches during the months ahead.
There’ll also be plenty of that in the Localism and Decentralisation Bill that we will introduce in the autumn.
But today, I want to set out the fundamentals of our approach:
The fundamental ideas behind our decentralisation agenda.
And the fundamental actions by which we will pursue this agenda.
Initiative, speech and resilience: starting from the bottom-up
In a moment I’ll start with the fundamental ideas. But before that, I’ve got a confession to make:
As well as being the minister for decentralisation, I’m also the minister with responsibility for central planning.
Yes, I know - ironies galore.
Fortunately, this other role is limited to nationally important infrastructure.
And even here we’re doing our bit for the Big Society, by removing the power of final decision from unaccountable quangos and giving it to ministers accountable to Parliament.
What I won’t be centrally planning, however, is our decentralisation agenda.
It would be perfectly possible for me to do so.
I could, like ministers have done before, play around with the structure of local government and decide exactly who should do what and where.
I could tinker with the chain of command that links the various tiers of public administration and even co-opt the occasional outside contractor.
Looking back over the years, it seems as if the secret wish of every minister was for a war room where they could push pieces around a great big map.
That, however, would hardly be consistent with the ethos of decentralisation.
Last week in Liverpool, David Cameron introduced four vanguard communities who are eager to start putting the Big Society into practice.
These aren’t communities that we’ve chosen; they chose themselves.
Furthermore, each will be pursuing Big Society projects of their own devising; taking on a blend of powers and responsibilities most appropriate to their priorities.
From a central government point of view there is no agenda other than to learn how we can best help each community achieve their own vision of the Big Society.
This stands in obvious contrast to the old approach, which was for Whitehall to devise a pilot project, test it out on subject communities, and then roll-out the results nationwide.
This reminds me of the way that antidotes to poisons are produced.
First of all, you inject a small dose of the toxin into the flesh of a large mammal like a horse. Then you extract the resulting antibodies for use on human patients.
It is an approach that might work in medicine, but not in the social sphere.
Scaling-up identical antidotes to social problems doesn’t work because each community has its own problems and needs to find its own solutions.
Moreover, no one wants to be the horse’s backside.
But what about the problem of replication?
If a community hits upon a really good idea, one that could make a much wider impact, then what’s the point of confining it to just one project?
Isn’t the only way forward a programme of mass injection?
There’s a very good answer to that and it comes from Bangladesh.
In 1974, an economist called Muhammad Yunus was wondering how he could help his countrymen in the wake of a terrible famine.
What he did was to lend just $27 to a group of 42 families.
Not only did this allow them to escape the clutches of predatory loan sharks, it gave them the confidence and ability to start investing in the own futures; for instance, by buying a few head of livestock to generate a little additional income - enough to rise above the level of subsistence, enough to finance further investments.
From this small beginning, Yunus didn’t just found the now world-famous Grameen Bank, but also established the practice of microcredit as a powerful weapon in the fight against global poverty.
Looking back on those early days, Yunus made the following observation:
It never crossed my mind to ask, “will this solve the problem of 50 million poor people in Bangladesh?” I was simply asking myself, “can I do something to help the villagers of Jobra?” When I solved the problem of a few people, I felt encouraged. I realised that all I had to do was to keep on repeating it. As a result, microcredit became a global phenomenon. If you know how to lend money to five people, you have learned how to do it for five thousand people - or five hundred million.
Seeds and speed
Millions of different people, but also, if I might add, millions of different ways. Because in each case the money is used by the recipient for an individual purpose suited to individual circumstances.
But can you imagine what a Whitehall version of the Grameen Bank would have looked like?
Let me paint you a picture:
First of all, a committee is established to decide what kind of livestock should be made available under the loan scheme.
Having eventually settled on the goat, a further set of committees is then appointed to decide what breed of goat.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister convenes a special conference to unveil the new bank’s official logo. Perhaps featuring a goat motif. Probably designed by Damien Hirst.
Oh, and don’t forget the czar and a taskforce. No government idea is complete without one of each.
After flying out to Bangladesh with his taskforce and a team of management consultants, the czar proudly announces far-reaching plans for a series of regional goat-distribution centres.
Some of these even get built.
Some years later, and with a new Prime Minister in office it is decided that goats are passe.
Not only is there to be an exciting new emphasis on chickens, but it is also decided that the bank should be re-established on an international basis.
After much discussion, the bank is finally re-launched with a new name and logo under a steering group composed of recently-retired bankers, officials and perhaps even an ex-Prime Minister.
Sadly, after two years of disappointing results, a report commissioned from a different team of management consultants concludes that, with the benefit of hindsight, lending small sums of money to subsistence farmers was never going to work.
The subsequent policy review recommends that, in future, money should only be lent to sovereign governments - a point which the former prime minister enthusiastically endorses.
OK, so this is a farcical scenario.
But surely if you want to spread a good idea fast, surely you need a grand government scheme to give it legs?
Mohammed Yunus takes a different view.
He argues that the fastest way to make progress is to start small:
For those who are considering becoming involved in social business, you don’t have to wait. You can see the impact right away - not on the whole of society, but on a portion of it… It’s not necessary to wait to see the impact on millions of people. “Millions” is a big number. But if your work has a positive impact on five or ten people, you have invented a seed. Now you can plant it a million times.
If this approach can work in Bangladesh, it can certainly work in Britain.
Enjoying, as we do, the full benefits of the information age, there is every opportunity for good ideas to spread quickly.
All the more so, when decentralisation is combined with government transparency and access to social finance.
Risk and resilience
And there is further advantage to locally-led innovation - which is the freedom to take risks.
Not every innovation will succeed. Some will fail.
But the roll-out of standard models across the country offers no greater protection against failure. It just means that the cost of failure will be nationwide.
That is why central government is averse to innovation - preferring to fail in old and familiar ways, rather than risk new ones.
However, when innovation is small-scale, the failures can stay that way, while the successes can spread - proven by experience.
In other words, you lose small, but win big.
So as well as speed, the bottom-up approach has the advantage of resilience.
I hope I’ve communicated something of the ideas behind our decentralisation policy and why they differ from what’s gone on before.
You have seen how we are already putting them into action.
For instance, by allowing parents to establish new ‘free schools’ where they decide they want something different to what is on offer.
Or by allowing people to vote for a commissioner who will hold their local police force to account.
We will take fundamental actions such as these across the whole of government.
Because, I’m not proposing that ministers should just sit back while local communities get on with the job.
Local innovators need a government that actively supports them in their endeavours.
Breaking the chains
The most basic thing we can do to help is to remove the most obvious and outrageous impositions on local freedom.
By this I mean the targets, the inspections, the directives, ring-fencing, regulations and general bureaucracy by which the centre suppresses local initiative.
We’re making good progress on this already - especially in regard to local government.
We’re abolishing the Regional Spatial Strategies, the Comprehensive Area Assessment, and the Standards Board to mention just three examples.
Our determination to decentralise has astonished those who assume that politicians are always localists in opposition, but centralists in government.
The following is an excerpt from an Eric Pickles interview for Total Politics magazine, here he is talking about the Whitehall reaction to his plans:
I want to put this politely, but occasionally you do things that surprise them. For example when we got rid of the Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA), they said:
“You want to replace it with what?”
“Yes, okay. But what things do we want local authorities to be judged on? What’s the regime?”
“So just to be clear Secretary of State, when you say nothing, what do you mean?”
Nothing. I mean nothing, absolutely nothing. It’s pointless. It doesn’t do anything.”
However, as Eric went on to say, there are other regulations that do have a point. Health and safety legislation, for instance.
This was never passed with intention of stifling local innovation, but unfortunately that is very often its effect.
Then there are those barriers that arise from the fact that much of the public sector was constructed without any thought for local control or diversified delivery.
From the post-war period onwards it was simply assumed that control and delivery would be from the top-down, and therefore there was no provision for a future in which this model was challenged.
So, the Big Society faces all kinds of obstacles that are hardwired into the system. They stem from habits of implementation and institutional inertia, as much as deliberate Government policy.
Unlike such things as centrally-set targets or regional quangos, they can’t be simply swept aside at the stroke of a pen.
Thus the decentralisation of power depends on three further fundamental actions:
Rights not privileges
The first of these is a Right to Know. When public money is being spent, people should generally be able to see how much is being spent and on what. This should apply to central government, local government and all public bodies that disburse public funds.
Transparency is the foundation of accountability. It is also a powerful means of promoting efficiency, without requiring the heavy-handed intervention of an unaccountable bureaucracy.
The Right to Know can become much more powerful if it is joined with a second fundamental action - establishing what I call the Right of Challenge.
The consumers - and potential producers - of public services should have the right to change the way that public resources are deployed wherever and whenever a better proposal can be found.
Judgements on these proposals should be made at the most local level possible - thereby enabling communities to truly take control of their own development.
We should send a clear message to various public sector bureaucracies that their duty is to facilitate the decentralisation of power.
Communities must stand before the bureaucracy as free agents demanding what is theirs, not as supplicants begging for scraps of freedom.
That is why this government views self-determination as a right and not a privilege.
Turning government upside down
The third fundamental action that we need to take is to change the very nature of central government.
Since becoming a minister, I have experienced the way in which the enormous resources of the state are placed at the disposal of the political and bureaucratic chain of command.
On one level, I am very grateful for this. My civil servants work diligently to keep me informed, to open channels of communication and to overcome obstacles to those parts of the coalition programme for which I’m responsible.
However, I am acutely conscious that the experience that others have of the state can be very different: in particular, the institutions of civil society that, far from being helped by the bureaucracy, are often hindered by it.
If we want change to happen at the most local level, then we have to understand that at such a scale even the slightest bureaucratic hurdle looms large.
Furthermore, it is very difficult for community institutions to get the help they need to get around these obstacles.
This is because centralised regulatory systems are designed to make demands on those at the receiving end of regulation, not to respond to demands for help when regulation gets in the way of local initiative.
By the time they reach down to the local level, the various branches of government are too specialised to recognise the big picture needs of the communities they interact with and are - equipped only to implement the commands of a distant source of authority.
The paradox is that, at the point where they come together, it is not the local community that is too small, but central government.
That is why we need to turn central government upside down and inside-out.
Instead of the civil service only being focused upwards on providing advice to Ministers - and inwards on its own priorities - we must drive the focus downwards and outwards to put those resources at the service of communities nationwide.
In my own department, I am establishing a “barrier-busting” team whose sole purpose will be to help community groups get the backing they need when they encounter bureaucratic obstacles to local objectives.
Sometimes that will mean providing advice on ways around the obstacles. Sometimes it will mean knocking heads together.
Most of all it will mean systematically gathering the evidence we need to tackle the problem at source - by reforming and repealing the legislation and regulation at fault.
The state should exist to serve civil society, not the other way round.
V: Over to you
So, these are some of the fundamental actions that we propose to take.
But ultimately, and by definition, the success of decentralisation depends on local action.
Indeed, upon the initiative of some of you in this room today.
Some of you will be pioneers.
Other, just as importantly, will be inspired imitators, shopping around for the best new ideas and customising them for local use.
I hope it won’t be long before we see significant public sector reforms spreading from one part of the country to another, without ever having appeared in a Government green or white paper.
That will be a sure sign that Britain has truly decentralised.
And that the Big Society has truly arrived.