Big Society: One size fits all?
The Conservatives won the election in 1983 because the country did not want to relive the crisis of the mid to late 1970s with all the union strikes and the problems of the economy that brought the IMF to intervene in the Britain and demand a structural adjustment of the economy. But Margaret Thatcher almost closed down Britain after she took over as Prime Minister in 1979. She destroyed the manufacturing base, took on the unions, sent 3 million people to the dole and sent the country into recession.
The country must have voted for her partly because of the Falklands War, but mainly because of the confidence they had that she could sort out the economy.
An economy which has millions of people unemployed is not a productive economy and the government ends up spending more money on unemployment benefit. But in truth governments wish that everyone would work, to increase the national income and also to pay taxes. So what did Thatcher do that is not happening now.
She eventually took the economy out of recession by reflating the economy, but she also set up many initiatives to address unemployment in this country, in hard and soft skills training courses and job creation and placement initiatives directed at local communities.
So why is this coalition government in such a bind about creating jobs?
The problem lies with the design of the Work Programme that is expected to implement welfare to work programmes that will provide support to help the unemployed get jobs. The flaw is that this programme is being designed at the national level contrary to what was promised and only larger organisations with the financial muscle can bid for contracts. So once again it would seem that effectiveness of delivery and outcomes of these programmes are being sacrificed on the altar of efficiency of the process and the profits that would go to some of these support services delivery organisations.
Job creation must be focused at the local level. That is the missing ingredient in the government’s Work Programme. In Thatcher’s time, she set up Local Action Teams, Task Forces, Enterprise Clubs, Job Clubs and all these contracts were negotiated between Local Area Departments of Employment and local community and voluntary and private organisations who provided services based on their in depth local knowledge of the people and their aspirations. These contracts were not based on the financial muscle of the national contractors and they worked because they were local based organisations who knew the clientele and knew the small business people who would provide the jobs.
Why does the government not see that working with smaller, more responsive local organisations organisations, will be more effective than contracting with monolithic conglomerates who will implement one size fits all solutions; where are the organisations that successfully delivered these programmes, organisations such as the Hackney African Organisation, Community Roots Trust, Acaffess, the Brixton Neighbourhood Community Organisations, the Broadwater Farm Development Association, the West Indian Leadership Centre, Kensington Family Centre to name a few of the myriad of black-led organisations that ensured that young African Caribbean people were properly trained with skills for the jobs that would be created within the local community.
One sector, in which community and voluntary organisations have provided worthwhile services, is in the employment and skills training sector where empathy and innovation are critical to the provision of jobs for local communities. It is has always been recognised that in unemployment related issues it is important to use diverse structures to ensure that people get into jobs. Where is the diversity that Britain so much craves to ensure that there are local solutions for local problems?
Of course communities of interest should embrace the Big Society, but the Big Society is not about big organisations getting national contracts to deliver work programmes locally. Where is the localism that this coalition keeps harping on about? Is all this going to be subsumed into a lazy way of doing things – no innovation, no diversity and no responsiveness, the very principles on which the big society is to be founded?
Increasing the threshold of government contracts goes against the whole philosophy of the Big Society. The coalition must start unbundling these contracts; they must ensure that government departments at the local level will work with local organisations to deliver services to the local community. If Britain is to start working again, we must move away from the tired, old solutions that look very good on paper but deliver nothing. They are not inspiring, they are not attractive and nor are they effective.
Local area community organisations will engage with such proposals and initiatives and will actually allow their creative energies to flow in helping to train people in skills for jobs and placing them in jobs in their local area. These are the initiatives that will start working and will free up the Prime Minister from constantly having to spend his time explaining what is staring him in the face.
David Cameron must go back to the people and ask them to find their own solutions to their own problems; this is what will engage them: that is the Big Society, because after all we are all in it together.
Ade Sawyerr is partner in black economic and social advancement management consultancy, Equinox Consulting. Blog. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org . Ade‘s blog.
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