Big society fact and fiction

One issue that doesn’t yet seem to have cropped up in policy discussion about the Big Society is – how will we know if it works or not?

So far we have been presented with lots of examples of projects that meet the government’s definition of the Big Society.  Some of these are even in inner-city areas like Balsall Heath and Shoreditch.  But often they are projects that were happening long before the Big Society idea was created.

We know there are some new, pilot projects like the one in the EdenValley; we also know that there is a question mark over the pilot in Liverpool.  But while the success or failure of a few pilots may grab the headlines, it’s hardly evidence of the transformation that Lord Nat Wei and others claim has now begun.

Surely to find out whether the Big Society is working we need to carry out some surveys across the country. We need to ask people questions like whether they are volunteering, whether they feel good about their neighbourhoods, their role as citizens and their attitudes towards public services.  You know the sort of thing.

In fact, you are probably very aware of the results of these kinds of survey, because they already exist.  The government’s Place Survey and the separate Citizenship Survey have been asking these questions and collecting detailed evidence for several years.

For a government intent on reshaping society, they provide just the kind of facts it needs about the challenges to be tackled.  As the surveys roll out in future years, they will show whether the Big Society is having an impact or not.

Except they won’t, of course.  The Citizenship Survey has just been cancelled because it is ‘complex and expensive’.  The Place Survey has been suspended and there seem to be no plans to resume it.  So while we know that 14% of people currently feel involved in local decision-making, we won’t know if this has gone up or down.  We know that 24% of people claim to be volunteering at least once a month.  How will we know how many are in future?

To be fair, there was a case for rationalising the various surveys, which often examine overlapping issues.  But abandon them?  The government will say that local authorities and others are likely to do similar surveys.  In an era of spending cuts this seems improbable, but even if they do, it’s most unlikely they’ll ask the same questions.  So the whole point of regular surveys – comparison between places and over time – has been lost.

Is the Big Society a serious initiative, where those propounding it are pretty sure it will achieve a major change in the relationship between citizens and the services they receive?  If it is, why not continue to collect the evidence that might show in future whether there has been such a transformation – or not?

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