Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Guardian vs the Big Society

You can see why the Guardian would not like Big Society ideas.

Ideologically, they challenge the left's assumption that progress consists in more and more areas of social life coming under the supervision of government. And economically, both the newspaper and many of its readers rely upon the public sector for their income.

But it will have to do better than it did yesterday in its attempts to combat those ideas.

On Friday the novelist Zadie Smith gave an interview to the BBC's Today programme. The following day her comments on the Big Society and multiculturalism were pulled out by the Guardian and turned into a news story.

Its coverage of the concept amounted to:
Her views on David Cameron's idea of the big society – encouraging citizens to take over the running of local schools and hospitals, or even set up their own – drew Smith's scorn, as it apparently did on the doorstep during the election campaign, according to Tory candidates.

"The big society? I don't know. I don't really want to build my own school or my own hospital – I appreciate it if someone else does that for me," she said. "I am not so keen on that kind of people action. I think most people would like their services prepared for them. I am not a great fan of that concept."
And that was it.

Next week: Jake Arnott on the future of the Financial Services Authority.


Dave said...

One might treat most calls for rabid decentralisation with equal scorn: “You don’t want some central administration deciding whether your child can go to a decent school or you can have that long-awaited surgery, do you? You want it decided by your neighbours.” As if that somehow makes it better.

As for the notion that such decentralisation for its own sake represents some "ideological challenge" to left perspectives: so probably does alien abduction, but I doubt it keeps many lefties awake at night.

The proposition that ever greater fragmentation of decision-making and service delivery benefits those at the bottom of the power chain may make for an appealing soundbite but is rarely backed up with evidence. Nor is it likely to be, because those at the bottom don't get a hearing: it's not about them, it's about multiplying opportunities for their "betters" to get a piece of the action and shifting costs from the centre where there's most opportunity for economy of scale.

We’ve seen one disaster after another: a once truly national NHS reduced to a postcode lottery; educational apartheid in which your children’s education is determined by where you can afford to live; vital child protection functions dumped on local councils barely up to maintaining a library service.

Small is not always beautiful. We’re awash with petty local agencies duplicating decision-making functions that could be just as effectively and far more efficiently exercised nationally. Now they want to go beyond even that and reduce more of those needing help to reliance on charity rather than the public services we’ve all paid for.

And there’s more to Mr Cameron’s “vision” than just giving more power to councils that can barely cope with what’s already on their plate: there’s “making regular community involvement a key element of civil service staff appraisals” – What, government workers will HAVE to satisfy their masters about what they do in their spare time just to get their next pay rise or keep their job?

Then there’s “[giving] public sector workers a new right to form employee-owned co-operatives and bid to take over the services they deliver”. So a public service can in future be taken out of the system altogether by its “employees” (read managers) and made a private monopoly accountable to no-one? How does this empower us?

It’s a nightmare mish-mash of Edward & Tubbs thinking and financial & administrative unburdening that will leave most of us with poorer services accountable to no-one, with ever more impenetrable bureaucracies and local charity boards duplicated ad nauseam, and with provision for all replaced by knowing the right neighbours. That it’s “local” doesn’t make it better.

dreamingspire said...

Oh dear, Dave: the NHS was a Postcode lottery in the 1960s (we didn't have postcodes, but you know what I mean), but my astute parents managed to defeat it (not everyone is as tough as my old Mum - nearing 100 now she is). And of course we don't have accountability now, so decentralising doesn't change that.

What decentralising is about is getting rid of the statist tractor production target mentality: tailoring services to local needs, which is how it worked before the computer age (before the 19070s IT invasion).

But we still have not solved the problem of ensuring quality, either with the Lab statist method or the proposed ConLib decentralisation.