Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ set to leave a disastrous legacy for public services

David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ looks set to make matters worse unless public services start to support citizens in changing their communities.

By Sam McLean, RSA Director of Public Participation

Despite a great deal of personal blood and sweat, David Cameron has failed to sell the ‘big society’. There are many competing explanations for this. Half of the population still hasn’t heard of it. It remains ill-defined. And it has been too easy to dismiss the ‘big society’ and its emphasis on citizen responsibility as cover for the deepest public sector cuts since the 1940s.

But there are more fundamental problems with the coalition’s ‘big society’ agenda. It lacks a strategic and plausible account of how public services might foster the mass participation the ‘big society’ demands.

Indeed, the Open Services White Paper says a great deal about giving people more power and freedom, but has very little to say on how public services might cultivate civic capacity or support people to become active citizens.

This undermines the coalition government’s said commitment to fairness and empowering those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Without a coherent plan of supported empowerment, the legacy of the ‘big society’ is likely to be disastrous, exacerbating rather than ameliorating the kinds of social problems like those facing Peterborough, the foucs of the RSA’s recent study – social inequality, drug dependency, and fragile social bonds.

Because as our Civic Pulse pamphlet shows, society is anything but a level playing field, and large numbers of people lack the basic capabilities and resources required to be the active participants in society the government wants.

So what is the solution? How can the ‘big society’ work? And what is the future role for public services?

Launched in late 2009, the RSA’s Citizen Power programme in Peterborough offers one way forward. Over the past eighteen months, we have been working closely with citizens, community groups and public services in Peterborough to see how citizen activism can be cultivated to overcome long-term social problems, and how this can be supported by public agencies.

Today the Citizen Power interim report is published. It outlines a new model of public services as facilitators of social action rather than service providers, which underpins the Citizen Power programme and its six strands of work.

These include: schools working together to improve civic participation amongst young people by bringing what young people learn and where they live closer together; the development of a new network of citizens being trained and supported to tackle local problems like anti-social behaviour and social isolation; and a radical, new approach to drug services led by those with direct experience of drug dependency.

The Citizen Power approach is demanding of both citizens and public services. Citizens have to adjust to the new role of social problem-solvers and take greater responsibility for the civic and social well-being of Peterborough. And in return, public services have to change their own behaviour.

With less money and resources, their new role is to support citizens to meet their own needs as best they can, co-produce solutions with citizens, and stop trying to control from the center. To this end, Citizen Power has now been placed at the heart of the city’s five-year strategy to re-think public services: its Single Delivery Plan.

The Citizen Power programme shows us that the ‘big society’ and public services depend on one another. While public services certainly need to change, they also have a vital role to play in meeting the needs of citizens and tackling complex social challenges.

If the Open Services White Paper is anything to go by, the coalition could do much worse than learning from local authorities like Peterborough and social change programmes like Citizen Power.

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