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Thursday, 16 September 2010

Friday Guest Blog - Claire Mclauchlin from Weber Shandwick

By Claire McLauchlin

Public Affairs Consultant at Weber Shandwick

I must admit, I wasn’t a huge fan of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ plan, in fact the term having a dog and barking yourself sprung to mind. However, Cameron has said that the concept would be a ‘big advance in people power’ and a change in the way we do things is inevitable following the recent financial fallout, so I am willing to be proven wrong.

It’s not that I don’t think there is a place for social enterprise, charities and voluntary initiatives working together to deliver public services – there undoubtedly is, if it is a proper co-operative of opinions and actions. It has to be organised and executed properly and not just seen as a way to cut costs – lets not forget the introduction of PSO’s, which not only reduced the number of trained police officers on the streets but often caused more problems than they solved.

The concept of ‘Big Society’ isn’t actually a new one – Margaret Thatcher always wanted more individual action and less state intervention. Also, in 1985 the Prince of Wales Community Venture began in Sunderland, the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council was aimed at encouraging a team of citizens to constantly strive and offer excellent services to within the community.

So the idea isn’t anything new, yet we haven’t actually seen much detail on how this is all going to work. We have been introduced to some initiatives including ‘Your Square Mile’ – an invitation for us to ‘make changes in the square mile where you live or work’. Also there are schemes like the ‘Big Society Day’ and the ‘Big Society Bank’ where the community can have first refusal on any state asset being sold off. And of course, no campaign would be complete without the obligatory advocate’s panel, in this case an MBE’s network to champion local heroes and citizen’s initiatives.

Perhaps my years in PR have jaded me but I can’t help but feel cynical that there are a lot of campaign concepts going on but not an awful lot of depth.
Cameron said: “I want other forward-thinking, entrepreneurial, community-minded people and neighbourhoods in our country to come forward and ask for the same freedoms, the same support too. If you’ve got an idea to make life better, if you want to improve your local area, don’t just think about it – tell us what you want to do and we will try and give you the tools to make this happen.”

How will the Government deliver the necessary tools with limited, if any, offer of grants or funding?

In Manchester at least, it seems that the responsibility will inevitably land on the shoulders of local businesses but not much is actually being said on that. With the demise of so many social enterprises, Manchester businesses will certainly play a key role in our ‘Big Society.’ But what are the benefits and incentives?

If the Government opens up and allows businesses to work with them, then it will be a good opportunity for self-regulation and co-regulation to define government and civil society agreements – but this would have to be with Manchester’s leading business people.

Our successful regional businesses can also play a key role in helping social entrepreneurs grow, this can happen through mentoring relationships or by serving as non-executive directors.

Also key to success will be the city’s industries contributing to our ‘Big Society’ by lending their expertise in specific areas and entering long-term partnerships with a view to building up social enterprises.

Committing employees’ time and expertise to help make the ‘Big Society’ a success is a significant undertaking, but I’m sure the Manchester business community would also stand to benefit from enhanced employee skills and stronger relationships within the city. It may also encourage a sense of community within the office and nourish more of a team building attitude, where we work together both inside and outside of the work place.

Of course it does beg the question, ‘who is picking-up the tab for this?’ Not only is the pressure on for private sector businesses to drag us out of the recession, but now we will turn to them to deliver our public services and provide economic leadership within our communities.

Business Link and the North West Development Agency were once vital resources for Manchester businesses and would have undoubtedly proved valuable in the success of our ‘Big Society’. However their demise is another example of the contradictory position the Government has taken on cutting back regional organisations only to depend on them to deliver our public services.

Cameron also said, “We’ve got to get rid of the centralized bureaucracy that wastes money and undermines morale.” Our business community can contribute massively to this and in improving Manchester’s services; however, their role must be crystal clear with shared responsibility with central Government.

I am open to the idea of businesses and the community working together to provide some sort of collective responsibility but I can’t help but be sceptical that the ‘Big Society’ concept is a little vague to be successful.

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