The real Big Society

26th February, 2013 2:14 pm

In the late 1980s, I took part in Neil Kinnock’s policy review – ‘Meet the Challenge, Make the Change’.  I wish we weren’t in opposition again, but I’m glad we have the opportunity for another reassessment of our policy platform.  However, unlike in the 1980s, this one has not come about because the Labour party can’t face up to the reality of governing, but because the reality of governing will have changed so much when we return.

As a Labour minister for 10 years, I made a lot of speeches. They often included a spending announcement. And the question and answer session which followed usually included an impassioned plea that the money I’d just announced was ringfenced and accompanied by a new target to ensure its use.  I’m proud of the transformation in infrastructure and standards achieved by these Labour government announcements, but this approach to government is not an option now.

Not only because the money won’t be there to announce, but more positively because we should be taking this opportunity to transform the way we see the role of the state and public services. Let’s consider the very interesting debate around the idea of a relational state – a title about as sexy as predistribution – but an idea with legs.

There is now some serious thinking and writing about how to ensure a more relational approach to the state and public services – not least in the extremely well attended Fabian New Year conference and in the IPPR publication ‘The Relational State’ with lead essays by Geoff Mulgan and Marc Stears. But two personal experiences brought home the potential to me.

Firstly, my Dad had emergency surgery whilst we were on holiday in Portugal.  It wasn’t just the surgery and drugs, but the Portuguese nurses who took the time to listen to his halting attempts to speak Portuguese, to reassure him and to talk through his treatment which gave him the confidence to get out of bed, on a plane and safely home. When I talked about this at the Fabian conference, a UK nurse challenged me on the basis that it sounded like a criticism of UK nurses. It certainly wasn’t – in fact it reinforced in me the view that the care and time of nursing staff can be even more valuable than those things which have a higher monetary value – the technology and the medical expertise. We need to find a better way of valuing the human relationship.

Secondly, my oldest son got a summer holiday job – as a temporary evening park keeper in the local park. It was the one with the best play area for hanging off and the best Co-op for hanging around.  The previous year, when no such role existed, it had been the anti-social behaviour hotspot during the summer holidays. He had some lively times, but he persisted in getting to know people, being a large and reassuring presence for most and a disincentive for some. Anti-social behaviour reports went right down and local confidence shot up.

I am not making a John Major-esque plea for the good old days when matron ruled the ward and park keepers dispensed a clip round the ear to keep crime down. But there are real opportunities with a new, more relational approach to public services to ensure that public money has the greatest possible impact. Furthermore a defence of public services must be able to demonstrate what is distinctive about their ethos – surely it must include the quality of the relationship between the provider and the citizen and the way in which those services see people as far more than a passive consumer of services. What should this imply about a new approach?

Firstly, Labour policy on public services should not just be about how we distribute public money, but also about how we redistribute power and control to staff and users.

Secondly, a modern view of people who work in our public services should support them not just to deliver, but also value and develop their ability to empathise, communicate, innovate and mobilise.

Thirdly, targets, if they exist at all, should promote this approach. I tried to do this as home secretary so I know that when this government justifies unprecedented cuts in policing by arguing that they’re cutting ‘swathes’ of central targets to free up police officers, they’re lying. I removed all but one target: to boost confidence that the police were tackling the priorities that mattered to local people. In other words, their success was determined by how much they knew what mattered to people, tackled it alongside local communities and told people about it.

Fourthly – in a time of austerity, the way to protect public services is not to retreat into departmental and sector bunkers. It is to innovate, to find new partners and to pool resources. Let’s consider the example of family intervention projects. This approach to working with troubled families was first developed by Action for Children in Dundee and then expanded through government investment, local authority coordination and new types of public sector workers.

This is not about spending more – these families are on the caseload of almost every public sector body in the area already. The key to the projects is the person who works to unpick all the problems the family is facing, to build a plan of action with them and then to make sure they do it. And it works. In the nearly 11,000 families receiving this support since 2007 (and this may be an underestimate), there is less abuse and stronger parenting; less crime and anti-social behaviour; fewer people with health problems including mental health and addiction; a reduction in those with education problems like truancy and bad behaviour or adults with no work or training.

These are just some of the ideas we could incorporate in a new, relational approach to the state and public services.  Now we just need a livelier name for these reforms and principles – how about the real big society?

This chapter is taken from the Fabian Society’s latest report Remaking the State: How should Labour govern?

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  • AlanGiles

    ” It was the one with the best play area for hanging off and the best Co-op for hanging around”

    With respect it is this patronising sort of drivel (“no we don’t use Waitrose, either. We are so ordinary like you”), that proves to me the bogosity of the “One nation” nonsense.

    When MPs, and ex-MPs, really do have to struggle like ordinary people – when they don’t accept their “food allowance” to spend in the Co-Op or anywhere else, each month. When they buy their own domestic furnishings and white goods, not to mention bath plugs and DVDs, and don’t charge it to expenses – in short when they have to paddle their own canoe on the average salary (and £65,000 for a bog standard backbencher is way above the average), when like the young or old couple on the housing estate, they pay all their own bills out of their salary, like ordinary people, then perhaps they can begin to talk about “1N”. Until then it is so much hot air.

    I am well aware, of course, that luckilly for Labour, many tribalists remain wide eyed and innocent, (gullable to put it nicely) but when you have lived for well over 60 years, and actually seen life get worse for people in the last 30 of them, it is very hard to be taken in by some shiny suited politician (or ex-politician) promising something they know they cannot deliver. No doubt in 2021, when we still don’t have “1N” after 5 years of Labour government, they will tell us, as Blair used to do, that it was an “aspiration”.
    But honestly, how stupid do they think we all are?.

    We will never have an equal society while politicians (and there were many of them) got away with claims that an ordinary benefit claimant would have been prosecuted for. If they had 14 charges of fraud against them, they would be very lucky to escape prison however “depressed” they were. And any jiggery-pokery like claiming a housing benefit for your parents home, if you didn’t live there would result in prosecution by the DWP. I am not sure which department would be responsible for invisible or non-existant cleaners.

    Politicians will never wish to be ordinary, because they couldn’t cope in the real modern world of short term contracts, expensive housing etc etc, which is what they would ahve to do if we were really one nation.

    It comes as no surprise to see Ms Smith leaping aboard the “1N bandwaggon”. Perhaps she hopes Redditch will have forgiven and forgotten in 2015?. But please stop insulting us with this sort of dream dancing.

    • AlanGiles; Spit those sour grapes out of your mouth, the expenses scandal is done and dusted now,Ithink te Labour Movement has learned the lessons from it and I think the P..L.P. has also realised that there will be far more surveillance of all such activities to allow a repeat of that scandal; there may well/will be scandals in the future but so long as there are sufficient checks and balances, and the westminster authorities have some in place.

      Jaqui Smith was never one of my favourite politicians, new labour through and through, and for me personally Westminster will be a better place if she never gets back, in either place. But reading her article I have to give her credit for the gist of her article. There seems to be a recognition that there was a lot of danage done through what seemed to be to many the overbearing attitude of many new labour acolytes, and that suggestions like she has made about communal activities in hospitals,local services etc and involveing and co-operating the work force through the whole process is the way forward, particularly with the desparate financial plight the economy will be in if/when Labour win in 2015

    • SJM

      “Perhaps she hopes Redditch will have forgiven and forgotten in 2015”
      That would be the Redditch CLP that has already selected its candidate for 2015?
      Maybe it would be better to check your facts before launching into uncomradely personal attacks?

    • aracataca

      I’m no fan of JS. Her recent suggestion that Labour should approve the 1% cap on benefit rises was disgraceful as is her sycophantic adoration of city moguls.In similar vein her incredible use of MPs’ expenses was appalling but this piece is not remotely about the One Nation theme Alan it is about ‘the relational state’ ie how public servants relate to their consumers. It is a topic worth exploring at the very least. Come on we’ve all had crap experiences from off hand and/or indifferent public officials.

      • AlanGiles

        Two points:
        1) It was Smith who chose to drag “One nation” into her article.
        2) MPs are public servants, and it was thanks to the antics of Smith and many of her colleagues, that public trust in them broke down. I think sticking two fingers up at the electorate by troughing might be described as a “cr*p experience”

        • aracataca

          ‘It was Smith who chose to drag “One nation” into her article’
          – Did she Alan? Can’t find the reference to it.

          • AlanGiles

            The title?

            Anyway, the article is of extraordinary banality, but no doubt there will be those who enjoyed it.

          • aracataca

            The title is ‘The Real Big Society’ – No mention of ‘One Nation.’

          • AlanGiles

            Well, there you are: “Big Society” “like “1N” is a silly pipedream. it’s just the Labour version of promising the unattainable.Interchangeable piffle.

            Unless of course Smith ISN’T a”1Ner”?

  • Daniel Speight

    What does a politician need? A thick skin and no shame. Jacqui proves it again.

  • Daniel Speight

    What does a politician need? A thick skin and no shame. Jacqui proves it again.

    • AlanGiles

      “The louder he spoke of his honour, the faster we counted our spoons”

      (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

  • Monkey_Bach

    And this from the woman who designated a room in her sister’s house as her main home (claiming £116,000 worth of expenses), whose husband watched pornography (and charged it to her expenses), and who said that Ed Miliband would be WRONG to oppose Osborne’s heinous 1% benefit increase cap, effectively a 2% upwards (CPI – 1%) real terms cut in the incomes of the poorest of the poor condemned already to eke out an existence on the margins of society, talking as nebulously and meaninglessly as David Cameron about some chimeric Big Society that has never existed and will never exist in Great Britain.

    Crawl back under your rock, Jaqui, and thank the taxpayer for your generous MP’s pension.

  • What is the matter with all these people? A well thought out, well argued piece about how Labour should be working with people at the sharp end of the public sector. And then all these sub-Daily Mail comments? I despair of people sometimes!

  • there are people already doing this work with families and attempting to build relationships in local areas. They are called community workers or community wardens (I am one myself). I definitly agree that more effort needs to be spend on quality measurements such as public confidence in the area, satisfaction and not on quantity measurements which tend to end up being tick box exercises for an unread monitoring report.

  • Quiet_Sceptic

    A lot of the examples of a ‘relational state’ in action could equally be described as public services discovering the concept of customer service and realising that their concepts about the service they provide and what constitutes that service, does not match those of the people they serve.

  • Dave Postles

    Oh dear. Targets were introduced from the world of business. In local government, we had the ethos that targets were negotiated so that they were realistic, took into account customer service, and involved staff. The targets of NL were imposed targets – from on high – the widget culture of industry (where PRP resulted in PPI and derivative mis-selling). We had that culture or ethos of public service/customer service, sustained by the conscientious supervision of our elected members. Governments are still trying to impose the widget management onto public services. It’s well past time to recognize that public service is different from widget manufacturing and sales.

  • NT86

    If you’re upset that Theresa May is still Home Secretary, just keep reminding yourself about who one of her predecessors was.

  • I’m not at all clear what exactly is being advocated in this article

    • AlanGiles

      I suspect it is merely Ms. Smith trying to get her old job back. She just doesn’t know where the next bath plug is coming from, now we don’t buy them for her! 🙂

      • AlanGiles

        A “down” vote: so her Ladyship has at least one fan! 🙂

      • AlanGiles

        A “down” vote: so her Ladyship has at least one fan! 🙂

  • AlanGiles

    “Done and dusted”?. Well, perhaps. Perhaps not. Certainly a Tory MP is currently under investigation about “irregularities” (Nadine Dorries) and I would be very surprised if she were an isolated case. MPs are still pampered too much like spoilt brats. Which many are.

    I don’t know about sour grapes, but you might want to consider that it was people like Smith who cost you the last election. Her conduct, was deporable and she like many others should have faced legal proceedings. But then, one of the few who did, Moran, was convicted of 14 offences but poor darling was “too depressed” to appear in court for sentence.

    And to SJM: If not Redditch she might be hoping somebody would be daft enough to offer her a nice safe seat. Politically she might be dead, but she won’t lie down. She keeps churning out articles so one assumes she still has amibition. She has chutzpah, if nothing else.

  • Daniel Speight

    Well Vivienne defend her then. It’s not ‘these people’ who had to stand in the chamber and publicly apologise for telling lies. She was caught cheating her expenses. In another world she would have been fired and probably charged with an offense. Profumo at least departed politics and went on to do good works. He wasn’t sitting on Andrew Neil’s TV sofa on Sundays.

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