April 1, 2010

"THE AMERICAN-NESS OF THE THING":

Election 2010: Eureka! At last, I can see what David Cameron is on about: We demand vision from our leaders - and the Tories' plan for society is truly radical (Benedict Brogan, 31 Mar 2010, Daily Telegraph)

The Big Society project must first be set alongside the supply-side reforms the Tories intend for the public services. If mobilising society's "little platoons" is the aim, then Michael Gove's scheme to encourage parents, volunteer groups and businesses to set up new schools is a crucial component, as is the innovative pledge to allow communities to take over and run local assets such as recreation centres or even shops.

For those looking to reduce the welfare bill, the plan to offer cash bounties to companies that find jobs for people on the dole is radical, as is the scheme for a voluntary form of national service for 16-year-olds. Philip Hammond, George Osborne's deputy, gave a lucid presentation on how reforming society is a vital part of returning us to fiscal stability: reduce the demand for welfare and you reduce – permanently – the deficit. Savings channelled back into projects that reduce dependency and increase freedom from the state in turn generate more savings. A virtuous circle is created.

Giving people both the tools and the powers they need to become active in their communities without waiting for the state to take the lead will be legislated for in the first term. A Freedom of Data Act will give us the right to access the information held by Government. Things like crime maps and public-sector job vacancies will not just be published online – alongside details of every item of public spending above £25,000 – but made available for re-use by others. Grant Shapps gave a useful analogy: when Apple introduced the iPhone, it had no idea that opening its system up to anyone who wanted to develop an application would result in a tool that allowed the public to take a snap of a pothole and report it straight to the council. A Tory government will set a similar framework of openness, then let us get on with it.

Then there is the Big Society package itself, which includes the creation of a "Big Society Bank", using unclaimed deposits to channel private money into grassroots projects; the training of 5,000 community organisers, who will fan out across the country to encourage local involvement; requiring civil servants to take on community service; and a Big Society Day to mark the resulting achievements.

You can find material here to criticise. Hearing Conservatives spouting the jargon of granularity, holistic multi-agency silos and burning platforms will set teeth on edge, though we might see it as a useful ruse: to win over that state-dependent volunteer sector, you must first speak its language. Then there is the American-ness of the thing: the idea of neighbourhoods is a transatlantic import, as is the faith in our ability to conjure up an army of community organisers like the young Barack Obama, embraced a bit too implausibly yesterday by Mr Cameron. Nor is it clear whether the necessary army of volunteers will materialise, given that no incentive is on offer beyond the warm glow of moral satisfaction.

So Mr Cameron is certainly right in one regard: his agenda is exceedingly ambitious.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 1, 2010 5:36 AM
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