It’s been hard to get away from the big society in the last couple of weeks. All the papers – including the Sun – have been on about it, and every second programme on radio and TV has been trying to get a handle on it.
It’s been enough to make even current affairs addicts run screaming from the room. Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, drily thanked a Third Sector conference today “for this rare opportunity to talk about the big society.”
So it’s clear that big society fatigue is beginning to set in. What’s less clear is whether the big society itself is beginning to sink in – to make a meaningful impact on the public and the sector.
Those who conceive of it as a set of programmes, at least in part, have been rewarded to some extent. Under intense pressure to ‘do something’, the government has rushed out somewhat sketchy details of the Big Society Bank and a proposed Big Society ISA.
The first recipients of the Transition Fund have also been announced, and news is said to be imminent about the community organisers programme. The big society advisor Lord Wei says the big society is about to move from the ideas phase to the social action phase.
But to what extent is the big society really a set of government programmes? And if such programmes are part of it, are they anything more than a stepping stone to the big society proper?
I say that because it seems to be the essence of the big society that you don’t actually have government programmes any more. You’ve got to do it yourself, chaps. It’s a whole new mindset – a different way of looking at the world.
You could call it the sink or swim society. But that might be a bit harsh, because there’s an upside as well – an opportunity for more of the voluntary sector to become truly voluntary: independent, confident, and able to challenge the government with impunity.