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Rebuilding ‘The Big Society’

TLC was privileged to hear from Sir Stuart Etherington – Chief Executive NCVO on his ideas for reinvigorating ‘The Big Society’ at an event at Holborn Bars London on 7 September 2016.

Sir Stuart’s premiss was that ‘The more the State does the less Society will do’ with three main participants The State, The Market and Civil Institutions all vying for position.
Sir Stuart went on to postulate six areas of Concern:

1. Fortification of Democracy – Recent issues of public concern, fuelled by the media, continue to dominate politics and the public confidence in democracy. Democracy is poorer if the Civil Society is not engaged.
2. Advancement of Regulation – has resulted in an abdication of Individual responsibility leading to risk aversion at all levels of Society.
3. Behavioural Economics – Nudge theory and how does Society move individuals to act for the betterment of Society. How might this be measured? GDP is a crude index of improved performance, are there other indexes which might better measure well being? What is the measure of success?
4. Network Society – The growth of retail companies without any shops (Amazon) taxi firms without any cars (Uber) hotel chains without any rooms (Airbnb) have changed the market and Society. Legal and regulatory frameworks are not keeping up with the change in the market.
5. Importance of Place – Where an individual is from not only shapes them but is extremely important to them particularly in terms of volunteering their time for the benefit of Society.
6. People are not self interested – Individuals today are often motivated to improve their environment and that of others but need to be harnessed with the development of a common will.

Sir Stuart went on to describe Michael Oakshott’s Enterprise and Civil Societies. In an Enterprise Society the State imposes some universal purpose on its subjects and in a Civil Society is a relationship in which laws impose obligatory conditions of action but do not require choosing one action rather than another. So what might a Bigger Civil Society look like? Sir Stuart talked about more mutuals such as Credit Unions in the USA, new ways of delivering public services and a move from private benefit to public benefit. He questioned the impact of technology and the erosion of jobs, the changing relationship between service deliverers and receivers resulting in a citizen dividend in terms of volunteering. So how does Society get more people to volunteer particularly across the generations? He mentioned recognition, tax incentives and asset transfer as potential models. In addition, he mentioned financing voluntary organisations with match funding from public resources with a variable ratio, funding circles and co-financing between the citizen and the State. His final point was that the larger charities of today were becoming closer to the market in terms of their methods, performance indicators and governance which meant they were less able to push forward the Big Society agenda.

Sir Stuart delivered an interesting and informative talk which provoked much discussion and debate.