ACEVO has launched its Commission report into the Big Society this week. The Commission members, drawn from across the political spectrum, broadly welcome the Big Society and regard it as an idea which should “transcend” party politics. Concerned by polling figures which show just 13% of people think the government has a clear plan in place to achieve the Big Society, the Commission urges the Prime Minister personally to take control and drive forward the agenda.
Powerful People, Responsible Society is an intelligent and considered report. Its balanced criticism is particularly valid on the lack of consistent guidance from the centre over what the Big Society – as a policy programme – is trying to achieve. Refreshingly, the report makes concrete recommendations. For example, building in through No 10 and the Cabinet Office specific ways of measuring the success or failure of the Big Society.
Of course, as a way of describing society and the relationship between people and the state (as Jesse Norman MP does well in his recent book), it is hard to measure its success. As anyone interested in cultural change will know, pointing to measureable outcomes is fiendishly difficult.
But there is a danger that this leads to a lack of accountability. Not so much for whether the Big Society is achieved or not, but whether the money and civil servive time invested in it was worthwhile. At a time of public spending restrictions it is vital that the Big Society is not ‘toxified’ further by those claiming it is a cover for cuts. Being able to show positive outcomes for the government’s investment in it is vital for avoiding that accusation. ACEVO’s suggestions for how this might be done is a welcome contribution to the debate.
Josh Harris – Research Coordinator, Contextual Theology Centre