Friday, February 25, 2011

Big Society, or small government?

*I'm gone after this for a couple of weeks - back blogging March 12
 Britain’s “Big Society” initiative has been showing up as a story line in Canadian media in recent weeks.
Not surprising, really. Our federal and provincial governments are promoting the same principles that British Prime Minister David Cameron is putting forward in his Big Society vision.  
He calls it a Big Society and we call it social entrepreneurship, but the goals are the same: More social enterprise; more collective responsibility for societal ills; more use of the tools of capitalism to fund social care. Canada is suddenly awash in task forces, strategies and policy debate related to social innovation, including a new high-profile advisory committee in B.C.
I like much of what’s being talked about. I’m all for innovation, and for a better way of funding community services if it gets us out of the uncertain, short-term, destructive and inefficient process we’ve got now.
But I can’t shake a certain unease. It feels to me like two very different kinds of dreamers are coming together under the banner of “social enterprise.” And it’s my experience that bad things can happen when that’s the case.
Dear reader, social enterprise is not a particularly compelling column topic. I’ve already stopped and started dozens of times in writing this, struggling for a better turn of phrase to see if I can keep you reading for another paragraph or two.
It has taken me three hard months of really working it just to get the first inkling of what’s being talked about, and why. So I feel your pain (or boredom). But when a Big New Idea suddenly takes hold across the western world, we’d best pay attention even when it makes our heads hurt to think about it.
Social innovation in the current context has emerged from two distinctly different challenges.
One centres around frustrated non-profit agencies exhausted by years of starvation budgets, an absence of consistent, effective policy, and wrong-headed government rules restricting how the agencies can generate and use money.
They see the social problems around them and want to be able to use the tools of business to create their own sources of revenue for addressing them. They want to be able to get a loan just like any other business so they can improve their services. In Canada, neither are possible in the current system.
The other involves modern-day governments from ideologies that favour lower taxes and less service. They seem genuinely baffled that poverty and social ills have increased on their watch, but appear completely unwilling to consider that their governance has had a role in that.
They seem to have concluded that the problem is in our communities. We’ve become too reliant on government to fix our problems. Big Society-type initiatives aim to set things right without government having to foot the bill for it.
The kinds of changes being contemplated are non-threatening and sensible on the surface. In B.C., for instance, we’re talking about encouraging philanthropic foundations to become lending banks for non-profits, and establishing hybrid companies that combine the best of business and social-enterprise practice.
That would let non-profits seek investors to help them launch businesses supporting their work. It would leave them less vulnerable to the whims of government, and free to shape their services based on client needs instead of the dictates of funders.
The ideas aren’t new. Neither are the problems, a fact that perhaps explains some of my suspicion. What has prompted this international outburst of government enthusiasm at this particular time?
It’s striking how similar the language is in the UK, Canada and the U.S. right now around these issues. In mere months, the themes of Cameron’s Big Society have become the darlings of Canadian and U.S. governments, and the impetus for a slew of new “partnerships” between governments and non-profits charged with figuring it all out.
Have governments suddenly awoken to what a jewel they have in the non-profit sector?  Or is this about the opportunity to shrink government funding even further, saddling beleaguered communities with even more of the work of social care that governments once provided?
Intent is everything. Wonderful to see the lion suddenly eager to lie down with the lamb, but a smart lamb will play that scene very carefully. Sometimes you’re a new fuzzy buddy, sometimes you’re dinner.
The conservative governments that have dominated western politics in the last 20 years played a starring role in creating the social ills they now want the Big Society to fix. I guess I just don’t trust them. 

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