One of the main recommendations in yesterday’s Public Administration Select Committee report on the big society was that the government should appoint a big society minister.
The new appointee, the report says, would have “a cross-cutting brief to help other ministers to drive through this agenda”.
Judging by the initial reactions, the voluntary sector is dubious. Umbrella bodies point out that Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, is already more or less doing that job. The addition of a new minister, they say, might create even more confusion about an agenda that is already poorly-understood by charities, civil servants and the public.
But the suggestion is based on a real problem in government. The big society means different things to different departments, and none are properly held to account when their policies (even if well-intentioned) have damaging consequences for charities and community groups.
The Work Programme is a good example. Charities say the scheme, billed by the Department for Work and Pensions as a “massive boost for the big society,” excludes smaller, specialist providers and risks failing the hardest-to-reach jobseekers. Several are considering pulling out of the programme.
Hurd acknowledges that the scheme is not going as well as was hoped. But as a junior minister in a different department, he has little power to hold the DWP to account about it.
A big society minister would need a huge amount of power and influence within government to be able to properly ensure the big society’s principles – making it easier for charities to deliver public services and devolving power from Whitehall to communities – were upheld. He or she would need sanctions to use as a last resort against departments that did not do this, or whose policies damaged the sector.
If the government agreed to create such a post, charities would be likely to welcome it. But this seems improbable, given the disruption that role could cause.
The chief executives’ body Acevo has an alternative: it said in its evidence to PASC that the Prime Minister himself should do more to hold departments to account about the big society. This might seem low on David Cameron’s list of priorities at present, but if he is serious about the agenda – which he once described as his “mission in politics” – it would be well worth considering.