‘The Big Society’ needs a local voice

Jane Wilson, CIPR CEOGuest blog post from Jane Wilson, CIPR Chief Executive Officer.

'The Big Society' is the philosophy behind the coalition government's social policy centre piece. It promotes devolution of power to communities and local government and is the counter weight to the hard fiscal management programme they have also embarked upon. It has so far crystallised into the Localism Bill, currently before Parliament, a green paper on public services and one on giving, aimed at encouraging more social action.

But the big society faces a big problem. As it stands, the initiative is neither visible nor well understood. In late 2010, Ipsos MORI reported that 54% of respondents surveyed indicated that they had not heard of the proposal and a YouGov Poll for the Sun newspaper in January 2011 showed that 63% are still in the dark. Reports from around the country indicate the big society is in danger of meaning all things to all people. Whether the initiative becomes political reality or not, it is struggling to break through into the consciousness of the people who will deliver it and those who may be affected by the changes it might bring.

Spending cuts are easy to understand and their impact is lasting and widely felt. In contrast, communicating an abstract idea on the role of the state in communities and public services to a wide audience was, perhaps, always going to be a struggle. Whilst it may be far sighted to begin a debate about the role of the state within society, the big society is about all things local - and central government may not be the best place from which to communicate the substance of the idea. Among the public and among some opinion formers, there is a degree of cynicism that the idea is being put forward to soften the image of a government engaged in a fierce economic struggle to reduce public sector debt. Regardless of this, if the idea is meaningful, it has at its core the proposition that decisions should be taken closer to the people who will be affected by them. The big society is a message that, if it is to work, must resonate outside Whitehall and in the communities that will be at the cutting edge. The results of the government's efforts at communicating it so far do not seem to reflect this.

It takes skill and expertise to communicate a complicated message to an uncertain public looking for reassurance about the provision of the public services that support their standard of living. More to the point, people who care about their communities could find much in the big society to cheer, but the confusion that surrounds the concept could undermine their enthusiasm. However, in the event that the initiative takes off, there would be a number of challenges and opportunities for communicators: local councils will be able to take on issues with far greater freedom to innovate to find solutions. This could make local government a more attractive place for talented community-minded people – it could also create more opportunities for communicators in forward thinking councils.

In general, all organisations involved in the local public services are going to have to get their message across on a more local level. Communicators could be in the best position to help organisations structure themselves internally in a way that will best enable them to meet the challenges of the big society, not just in terms of their own department but in terms of the wider organisation as well. Corporate Social Responsibility could come into its own as well.

Tweeting about the big society is not enough to make it a lasting and effective idea. A new approach to the way in which the big society is communicated could do more to inspire people in their communities in a way that delivers real change.

CIPR CEO Jane Wilson and Claire Cater from Bell Pottinger will be discussing the Big Society on CIPR TV on Wednesday 2 February at 5pm. Find out more