The Big Society is here and people are trying to understand what it is and what it means. In the Tory Party they are yet to decide for themselves despite being the inventors and implementers of the policy. At first there was the easycouncil in Barnet which is about as far from the Big Society as you can get as it has no function to create a sense of community action or spirit. Now there is the virtual council in Suffolk proposing to outsource all services with them suggesting that “the concept of the ‘big society’ [is that] communities and individuals [should] do more for themselves, so that they are less reliant on government services”.
The contradictions inside the same party are one thing but there something else which is more worrying. Outsourcing services may be able to foster a community spirit of collaboration but it has a greater chance of not doing so as this is new ground for governments and businesses, but it has serious implications for democracy and accountability.
The local council will set the fee it is willing to pay for a service and go with whoever is able to provide the services for that price, despite how well they are able to really meet the need of the local people. The failures of services are then placed on the service providers and others involved in service delivery and implementation rather than the local council.
Even if there is collaboration between service providers, citizens and other social players, ultimately the local council can wring their hands clean of mistakes and problems as they are only the commissioner and can look for another provider. The problem with this approach is that it denies those involved in policy implementation the flexibility to address specific local circumstances and needs as policy itself continues to be set by the local council (or even central government).
With the council setting the agenda and then asking others to meet it means that there is a clear democratic deficit as those who have the responsibility for implementing the services have little influence over the direction or content of the policies they are implementing. I am not sure this is what was originally meant by the Big Society and it certainly is not what a Liberal Society is as it reduces public accountability.
My vision of the Liberal Society is one where citizens are treated as equals important in the development and implementation process of services which will increase the democratic accountability as you are collaborating directly with government agencies. The state should be reformed to allow for this partnership to flourish, giving power back to where it belongs, with politicians remaining responsible for the effective and appropriate use of power. It is about being less reliant on government services but in the sense that we are working with government services as partners to identify and meet need rather than relying on them to do this.
This outsourcing project is a potentially major threat to the movement towards collaborative governance as it could undermine genuine efforts to fundamentally change the power relationship between state and citizen.