Wednesday, 16 February 2011

What if..... the 'Big Society' worked

Just for a second, if I shut my eyes tightly enough, I can imagine a world where the 'Big Society' works (This is despite coming to the end of the excellent 'The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone' which convincingly argues that the level of inequality in the UK and U.S is a major impediment for a sharing and cooperative society). Yes, I can force myself into a state of optimism. I can see innovations like the Ministry of Stories and other stories of individuals and groups being creatively empowered to improved services.

It seems to me that we are all too focused on the many reasons why the 'Big Society' will not work that we are failing to considering what will happen if it does work.
When I say 'work' this is of course somewhat subjective as if the plan does take off I am far from optimistic.

The reason for this is that there are two visions of what may happen if the 'Big Society' idea really gets off the ground. The first is the vision of 'bungling amateurs' which Francis Maude may be relaxed about, but as someone with five years experience in social care I can say I am definately terrified about. Even providing basic services is a complex matter and if something either goes wrong, or more likely something is omitted then the consequences can be dire indeed.

It is however, not just failiure that is the problem. Success is perhaps an even bigger issue for the 'Big Society'. According to the market logic of the likes of Maude, good services will flourish whilst poor ones will disappear through lack of demand. That this can be a problem may seem counter-intuitive; after all if services improve that can only be a good thing, right? The problem though is that when it comes to applying the supply and demand economics of the market to the voluntary and community sector there is a key difference. As Harvard Business School academics James Austin, Howard Stevenson and Jane Wei-Skillern point out both sectors have very different opportunity structures:

In comparing the nature of opportunities in the commercial and social sectors, clearly, there are abundant opportunities in the latter relative to the former. The demand for social entrepreneurial programmes and services usually far exceed the capacity of the social enterprises to serve these needs. Initial successes often lead to increased demand for the social enterprise's programmes, products or services, or even requests to scale or replicate the organization in some form. For many employees and for the outside funders, the growth imperitive often becomes paramount.

So unlike the commercial sector the demmand for services provided by the voluntary and community sector is virtually unlimited. On the face of it this would seem to suggest the need for an initiative like the 'Big Society', but the academics warn the pressures to meet the sheer scale of demand can be detrimental to voluntary and community organisations:

In some cases, growth may not be the best approach to achieve the organization's goals or to have the greatest social impact. Growth for the sake of growth has the potential to squander organizational resources and can actually detract from the organization's overall impact.

This leaves succesful organisations in a bind. Although Austin, Stevenson and Wei-Skillern are not saying that growth is intrinsically a bad thing, they provide a reminder that growth is not necessarily a logical outcome for a succesful organisation. This suggestion ties in with the view expressed by former Shelter Chief Executive Adam Sampson that some charities had grown too large, buracratic, commercial and in the process distant from their beneficiaries in a way which was threatening to undermine the sectors claims to distinctiveness.

This issue boils down to this. If voluntary organisations grow they may in the process of restructuring lose what it was which made them succesful in the first place, but if they choose to remain the same size they must cope with huge levels of demand which they could not possibly hope to meet. How do voluntary organizations cope with excess demand? The market mechanism of increasing price is out of reach to them, so they must choose between having a huge waiting list or develop criteria. The role of the criteria is simply to discriminate between who receives a service and who does not. This could be based on an assessment of need, on geographic residence criteria, financial circumstances, or any other combination of measurable characteristics. In some circumstances criteria my be formal, but in some cases it has been shown that informal arbitary rationing criteria have been used by voluntary ortganisations keen to safeguard limited resources.

What this all leaves is an opaque system where a person in need must approach multiple organisations and satisfy various sets of criteria, becoming as one academic, Caroline Knowles, referred to as "welfare Nomads"; persons spending the day wandering from location to location to piece together a patchwork quilt of support.

Set this against a backdrop of a welfare-state in retreat and you have a potentially toxic combination should the 'Big Society' actually work.

1 comment:

  1. I think you're spot on. This is why I utterly distrust a 'big society' imposed from above. The cabinet has never, ever, had to be welfare nomads. They've never had to hope an office stays open for an extra five minutes, depended on the kindness of strangers, been in debt, borrowed books rather than bought them, required an emergency loan or help from social services: they have no idea of the complexity of life for the poor or distressed. So they can't see any problems: their imaginary citizen is an educated, self-reliant individual with no fear of institutions and full awareness of their rights. The rest of us aren't like that.