Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Big Society

For work reasons I’ve been looking at the UK government’s portal at  There’s genuinely a lot of really good information on there and it’s genuinely as fascinating as it is hilarious.  For example, did you know that if you want to be a friend to the environment, you shouldn’t get cremated in metal shoes?  Or that it is less environmentally friendly to scatter ashes on the top of a mountain than it is at the bottom?

I’m certain there are good reasons for the government’s web portal to report these things.  They might even be more or less true.  I know that Greenpeace is forever sending me letters about the scourge of metal shoes, for instance. 

But the problem is that it’s hard to find this stuff.  By the time I’m looking for information about funerals, my dad’s corpse will already be in full armour and there won’t be much I can do about it.  I don’t need to know about funerals very often, thankfully, but I might need to know about the other environmental consequences of iron footware. 

And that’s the problem, of course.  The site is fairly well organised, but if you ever need to ask questions of the government, they are likely to be fairly specific.  Can you drill down to this information if you don’t really know what you’re looking for in the first place?

The Big Society is a really good idea in principle.  Giving money and decision-making authority to the people at the coalface instead of nameless bureaucrats is automatically a good idea in principle.  But then you can’t help but remember how corrupt and idiotic everyone is.  Politicians can’t go five minutes with more or less the same expenses system everyone else has without simply buying a moat at taxpayers’ expense.  All council members are the Monopoly fatcat and charities and voluntary organisations are staffed by excellent excellent people who only really care about one thing, often because of survivor guilt.  I’m not certain that this range of individuals is the right one to be governing our interests. 

I’m generalising, of course, and I neither question nor very much care about the motivations of charity and voluntary workers; they do great work and we couldn’t do without them. I wish I were more community-minded myself. But there’s the problem.  Most people are like me.  We care about some stuff but our attention isn’t very strong.  And we’re selfish and ill-informed and often not very bright.  I’m delighted in principle at the idea of my GP having funding to spend locally and in an agile fashion rather than giving that money to a health trust.  But then I remember that my GP is nearly as much of an idiot as I am.

The bureaucracy is there for a reason.  It watches the watchmen.  It fulfils functions that are necessary and which we can’t just pretend we don’t need.  If a charity takes over some aspects of our medical care because it’s better that way, who is looking after our privacy?  If a private company begins a meals on wheels service, how do we know it isn’t cooking the vulnerable?

The problem with The Big Society is that bureaucracy is still needed, it just needs to be more thoughtfully deployed.  And the government has said nothing about how this is going to be done.  It’s said nothing about how to turn ought – as in ought to be accountable – into is.

I have my hands full looking into how privacy might be maintained in the big society.  There are lots of other problems.  But the government hasn’t done anything to reassure us that it’s in hand. 

Bring on the big society.  Devolve responsibility and authority.  Give us a reason to do a good job looking after what we care about.  But make it realistic.  Tell us how we’ll be supported if we do it.  Tell us how we’ll be punished if we fail.  And tell us what guarantees we’re trading for supposed autonomy.

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