'Big Society' and the Pitfalls of Centralised Measurements

I have always had an eversion to the idea of a large state. The idea that citizens of a nation are controlled by the state repells me. That said, I also try to fight the temptentaion to believe that a nation with little to no government interfearence is the pefect solution, the one true way. I like very much the idea of a "for emergancy use only" government but at the same time I can see the pitfalls with this.

This is why the idea behind the 'Big Society' proposal strikes a chord with me, regardless of the stupid name. I like the sound of a measured approach that marries together the global and local economies; that communities are responsible for their own direction; that charities and social enterprises, run by people who understand the needs of the public best, are given the freedom and support to serve their communities. As with almost any proposal of this kind, there are massive problems to be overcome and huge pitfalls to be addressed. From how to prevent cuts in government spending killing off the very charities they claim to champion. To the strength of big business swallowing up local economies.

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Another less evident challenge however, is one that strikes at the very heart of the idea. The idea that the people are best served by their community than by Whitehall. That help is best provided to those that need it by local groups because they are better able to innovate, to adapt, to recognise what needs to be done quickly and to do it. This act of moving services from the centre to the periphery of society, I believe, makes a lot of sense but the issue of how resources are allocated could destroy the notion before it even gets off the ground.

Free To Do What We Tell You

If these services are indeed moved to a local level yet the decisions about what services should be provided and what money should be assigned to each area of need are left to central government, then the strategy, will be doomed to fail. You cannot claim that local social enterprise know best how to help their communities and then tell them what they should be doing. You end up with the same work being carried out but with different people performing the tasks. If the government
truly believe that these groups, given the freedom to operate independently, will be able to proved a more innovative and efficient service then they have to give them that freedom. Without this freedom, the idea falls flat.

Jules Peck (chairman of the Bulmer Foundation) poses the question:

"Extra powers and funds for community groups will be welcomed. But will this come with strings attached and a demand that the Government has a say in what is specifically intended to be a grassroots deliberative and democratic movement co-created by citizens themselves?"

Indeed, one of the main problems I have witnessed first hand with state provided social programs is the constant and overwhelming obsession with targets, measurements and rankings. They are investing significant amounts of money into a project so they want assurances it will succeed before they start and they want hard numbers showing it is going to plan at every step of the way. There are government employees all accross the land who's sole job is to measure the success of their project and report the statistics up the chain of centralised bureaucracy. If this burden is transferred to local groups the result will be a fragmented bureaucratic mess as appose to a centralised bureaucratic mess.

This kind of expectation and results based funding will choke the innovation that the government claims 'Big Society' will provide. If local charities are not able to try out new and untested schemes for fear of losing funding then they will have no choice than to provide the same old government approved services year after year. Moreover, if charities are burdened with having to bid for backing and funding it could prove too expensive for small organisations. This would leave larger national organisations providing a pseudo local service.

Samuel Middleton (researcher at ResPublica) asks:

"How should funding be allocated if not by measurement? Evaluating the impact of solutions and accurately conveying this to people who lack firsthand experience of the solution in action is fraught with pitfalls. But is there a viable alternative?"

I believe this is an important question and unless the government can find a suitable answer the 'Big Society' will be nothing more than a pipe dream.