Maybe it was because I was nursing a hangover but this morning’s breakfast seminar at the RSA just made my head hurt. From Big Society to Social Productivity coincided with the creation of the 2020 Public Services Hub and the publication of their launch paper. One of the speakers, Cllr Steve Reed, is Leader of Lambeth, the country’s first Cooperative Council. (Steve spoke about this at my debate on the Big Society last year). Reed wants to see ‘citizen-led’ public services that put people ‘in charge of their own destinies’. Instead of continuing to send in so-called experts to tackle the problem of gang violence he is ‘handing the resources of the state to the community’. Those living on the brutalised estates of Brixton, he argues, are best placed to solve the problem.
Unfortunately – because I liked much of what he had to say – Reed went on to contradict himself. He explained that the middle classes ‘have the capacity to participate if they choose to’. Does that mean that the rest of us lack the ability to take part in society (Big or otherwise)? That we’re just not up to doing things for ourselves because we need prompting and ‘supporting’. Certainly for Reed and therefore for Lambeth, the plan for the ‘very excluded’ is to ‘put capacity into them’. They will do this, he explained, by training up a ‘new cadre of facilitators’ for instance. After all, as Ben Lucas, founding Director of the 2020 Public Services Trust, explained, it would be Utopian to imagine the Big Society just ‘springing up’. Tell that to the participants in the Arab Spring. Or maybe they just had better community organisers.
As I explain here, I have a good deal of sympathy for co-production and some of the related ideas for improving public services that were discussed this morning. I am all for creating participative networks and challenging the traditional service delivery model that, as Reed rightly put it, is always ‘doing things to you’. The trouble is that efforts to involve local residents and users of public services can end up doing the same thing. It seems to me that we’re in danger of replacing the old model with something that is even more patronising and paternalistic. It is hard to escape the impression that we are very much being done to by advocates of the Big Society and Social Productivity. We are being participated whether we like it or not.