Big Society: where it all went wrong, by Richard Selwyn

28 Feb 11
Dark clouds are gathering around the Big Society. The idea is a sound one, but despite Cameron's passion his lack of planning is raising the prospect of its death-knell.

Dark clouds are gathering around the big society. The idea is a sound one, but despite Cameron’s passion his lack of planning is raising the prospect of its death-knell. It’s a classic error – rushing out the shiny new initiative before thinking about those boring things like change management and implementation. Unfortunately the political landscape is littered with shipwrecks – will the big society be the latest?

The last few weeks have seen a tremendous battle played out in the broadsheets between Cameron and a unified rebellion of the mystified, worried and angry. Cameron has utterly failed to win-over the public, charities or councils with his clarion call. The big society is viewed with confusion, suspicion and ridicule – blamed for the election stalemate, blamed for savage cuts to frontline staff, and blamed for the chaos that will hit vulnerable families in April.

So where did it all go wrong? Cameron, and his advisor Nat Wei, have made three critical mistakes in their implementation and change management.

Mistake number one is to confuse the idea of a big society with the national and local cuts to public services. Public service staff, and the citizens that rely on them, will never be motivated or enthused by the slash and burn politics and cuts they are witnessing. There was never going to be widespread support for an initiative that is too closely associated with the pain of cuts.  The ideas should have been sequenced and clearly separated in the mind of the electorate – part of a (still elusive) plan for future growth and vision for a better UK plc.

Mistake number two is in transition management – a particular Achilles’ heel of Cameron and his ministers. In the rush to implement shiny new ideas it is easy to forget that there are always three states in transition planning: current (that has to be managed now), future (that has to be clearly defined) and the transition. Any programme manager will tell you that the first two are easy, managing the transition is always most difficult and unpredictable. Time and time again we have seen this mistake from the coalition: NHS reforms have caught everyone by surprise with much of the transition to be managed by organisations that are being cut; the new local and central government cultures and frontloaded cuts were forced on departments and local authorities alike with no impact analysis; and we saw the bonfire of the quangos fizzle because it was badly thought out and executed. There is now some frantic retrospective transition planning in action, but is it too late for the big society?

And mistake number three is the inability of Cameron and Wei to manage the national change programme. Successful change management, particularly on a national scale, requires a strong vision that touches the electorate personally, clear and consistent communications (i.e. repeating the same message through different channels), capacity and resources to implement at the grass roots level, and strong visible leadership to steer the ship.

The tragedy is that the big society is based on sound ideas about system thinking – creating an environment that nurtures, learns and grows the new and much more efficient model for government. The model has even been shown to work at a smaller scale: empowering and trusting staff, building on the strengths of individuals and wider society, removing targets and bureaucracy, and focusing on the outcomes that really matter to families and communities.  But the fundamental mistake is in expecting this big society to grow with little more than rhetoric and the abolition of local services. The government would do well to reconsider, before the death-knell thrice tolls.

Richard Selwyn is an expert on designing commissioning systems in central and local government, at PIPC UK

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