The Big Society, the right to challenge and the dangers of astroturfing

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The Big Society is … 
 
That sentence has been finished in a wide variety of ways by both advocates and critics. However this points to at least some consensus - that it can be hard to define!

"The idea of the Big Society is a bit like the idea of the Holy Trinity: even when it's explained to you, you still don't really get it."
Stephen Bubb - Chief Executive of Acevo 
   
For some this ambiguity is a fundamental strength of the Big Society, creating a space for local innovation by reducing barriers and pulling the state back to foster a permissive environment for local cooperation and leadership. Others see the indistinct nature of the Big Society as an intentional omission of detail ensuring that the government cannot be held to account for outcomes which have not been defined.
 
Whatever your views of The Big Society, they should not temper your readiness for its impact. This is because the statutory footing for the Big Society is beginning to be introduced, such as through the upcoming Localism Bill.  This is likely to have a transformative impact on cross sector relationships, particularly around funding.
 
Through the new “Community right to Challenge”, voluntary and community sector organisations and groups will be able to bid to take over the delivery of a local public service if they feel that it is not currently being operated to a satisfactory standard. To clarify, this relates specifically to council services (e.g. waste collection for example) rather thancouncil functions (e.g. licensing) which are those things that require decision-making to deliver.
 
The council will get specific instructions (to be defined by the Secretary of State) setting out under what circumstances they can reject an expression of interest. In other words, the council will not be able to simply reject all bids to take on services without good reason. This, coupled with the fact that only the voluntary and community sector can make such expressions, sounds like a win-win situation for the sector … but the devil is in the detail.
 
Although only the voluntary and community sector can make expressions of interest in delivering a council service, they are not automatically handed the reigns. Rather, the council will be expected to undertake a complete commissioning and procurement process inviting bids from potential providers – including private sector organisations.
 
You don’t need to use too much imagination to foresee potential scenarios where conflicts of interest could arise. Private companies may well take an active part in building up local community activism by working with, or funding, community groups in order to put them in a position where they could conceivably challenge a council service. However, once a challenge has been successful, those same companies would then be free to submit a bid of their own once a tender had been put out. However, this ‘Astroturfing’ – a play on the notion of companies building artificial grass-roots movements – can be addressed with tools that we already have.
 
Local Compacts can be used to guard against Astroturfing in a variety of different ways. The first and most narrow way in which the Compact can help is in the guidance it lays down on the commissioning process. By committing statutory bodies to ensure that funding is made on a multi year basis, that the application process is as straight forward as possible and that risk allocation is proportionate the Compact helps level the playing-field.
 
The second way in which the Compact can help is by establishing the concept of ‘social value’ as a prime concern for commissioners. This ensures that the strong bonds that local voluntary and community sector organisations have in their community will carry weight in commissioning decisions.
 
And thirdly, and yet more broadly, where Local Compacts are working well, they help to build trusting relationships and foster a spirit of collaboration between the statutory and voluntary and community sectors which in turn makes passing services to them seem like a more attractive option for commissioners.
 
So whether the playing-field is lush and grassy, or the scorched earth of the current arid funding landscape – the Compact should at least offer some protection against rootless, imported Astroturf.

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