It’s been a big week for the Big Society – but to date, its biggest achievement is uniting the British press:
- Melanie Philips says in the Daily Mail that it’s turning into “the Big Embarrassment“, telling us “he has to start defending the key cultural bonds of ‘faith, family and flag’ which he currently ignores, scorns or undermines”. Bleuugh.
- The Financial Times has taken to framing domestic news in terms of Big Society failures, reporting a fall in charitable giving as Blow for Big Society as donations stall.
- Matthew Norman writes a sneery piece for The Independent, making the disingenuous suggestion If the PM is such an idealist let’s see him out volunteering.
So much for the communications re-launch of the Big Society. I’m not sure what the objectives of this re-launch were, exactly – but it’s hard to think they’ve been achieved.
I came across this quote today, from Theodore Roosevelt, no less:
“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
Soaring words, I know. Yes, there are legitimate questions to be answered about the apparent recklessness of the cuts, but let’s not forget that there are also many people rallying around the Big Society for the right reasons. They deserve support and encouragement – not moaning and sneering.
This is an ambition that has to work – perhaps in spite of, and not because of, David Cameron. The trouble is, the more loudly he backs it, the more difficult that becomes…
So I’m back in New York – week two. A few folk here are curious about all the Big Society rhetoric coming from the UK. Maybe it makes sense in a city that thinks in terms of neighbourhoods. So I did some digging: it seems that NYC has a burgeoning Big Society “ecosystem” all of its own…
- Dozens of cooperatives such as Brooklyn’s Flatbush Food Coop, a local natural food store which is owned by 3,000 of its customers.
- Partnerships between universities and communities, such as the Institute for Health Equity, which aims to works across the cities ethnic/racial populations and low-income residents.
- Social enterprises such as Housing Works, which generates its own income to fund housing services for people with HIV/AIDS.
- Technology services such as NPower New York which deals with tech exclusion and provides tech services for local non-profits.
- Green collar projects such as the Green Worker Cooperative which aims to incubate worker-owned environmentally friendly businesses.
- Urban Agriculture projects such as Added Value, turning vacant land into urban farms and by providing job training to local community youth.
These are supported by a layer of intermediary organizations, channeling money from foundations, state and federal government:
- Micro-credit organizations such as Project Enterprise, which supports entrepreneurs in “underserved” areas of the city.
- The Community Preservation Corporation provides developers with top-up funding to enable the development of affordable housing in mixed-income areas.
Some of these projects have been established in local communities for many years. More recently, Mayor Bloomberg has taken social innovation in the city to a new level. This description is from an article in The Economist:
Mr Bloomberg took office in 2002 thinking he could run the city much as he had run the media company that bears his name… But the mayor was soon frustrated by a system hostile to innovation. So, among other things, he bypassed that system by creating the Centre for Economic Opportunity (CEO), which invests a mixture of public and philanthropic money in social entrepreneurs’ ideas to help lift people out of poverty, particularly by emphasising personal responsibility.
Doesn’t this sound like the Big Society Bank? Maybe not: the CEO “emphasises taking risks, with the expectation of the high failure-rate typical in a venture-capital fund” – it’s hard to imagine the Big Society Bank going for a high risk approach.
The Big Society Bank is more likely to resemble Obama’s Social Investment Fund, which channels public funds into non-profits with a proven record of success.
And here’s a political irony: according to The Economist, Obama’s Social Investment Fund is modeled on Tony Blair’s idea of a Social Investment Bank, back in 2002. Gordon Brown demurred to implement this, but David Cameron is on it. Funny old world.
Photo at LES from Brian Rose.