The real problem with the Big Society (and I speak as someone who has written in favour of the idea) is that it was a vaguely-defined description that was turned into a vaguely-defined aspiration. As with so much of the Conservative Party’s agenda it turned out the project was infused with a nostalgic right-wing utopianism.
Yesterday’s letter to The Times from Sir Stephen Budd, the CEO of the Association of Chief Executives of Charitable Organisations (Acevo) was an important intervention from the third sector, which feels justifiably angry that it was marched up to the top of the hill by Iain Duncan Smith and then marched all the way back down again. To be fair to the Grand Old Duke of Chingford, it always seemed that the Big Society was something of a bolt-on to his welfare reforms. His employment minister, Mark Hoban, has been putting in the hours meeting representatives of the third sector. But he will have to work hard to win back their trust.
It is now obvious that a misty-eyed concept of civic responsibility based on the perfectly honourable tradition of volunteering at the local rugby club or Brownie pack would never be ‘fit-for-purpose’ when it came to stepping in for the functions of the state at the coalface of welfare-to-work, or offender rehabilitation. The coalition has simply not had the courage of its convictions and contracts to run government schemes have simply replaced vast state bureaucracies with vast private-sector bureaucracies.
The Work and Pensions Select Committee has now published the written evidence from various organisations of their experience of the Work Programme. This does not make for pretty reading. The St Mungo’s submission, for example, is a politely-worded, but devastating critique.
The probation service will be the subject of the next stage of the government’s payment-by-results revolution . As the Justice Select Committee concluded, last year, this is completely untried territory. It might work, but then again, it could be catastrophic. And that is the crux of the matter. There used to be such a thing as consultation, does anyone remember evidence-based policy making, which informed the New Labour philosophy of ‘What Works’? Now there is pure ideology and faith-based policy making has always been a very dangerous thing.