So what about this Big Society thing?
Mark Brown explores The Big Society and asks what it means for mental health
You may have heard the phrase ‘The Big Society’ coming from the mouths of various politicians in the last year. It’s one of the planks of the current government’s attempt to create a different relationship between people and The State. Put very simply, The Big Society is the opposite of the The Big State. Instead of waiting for someone else to decide to do things for us on our behalf, like national or local government or large bodies and organisation, it’s us, the people, who should be supported to do things that help us and others.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s vision of a Big Society is one where communities get together to tackle their own problems and are helped and supported in doing so by things like local councils who will take the approach of helping supporting and encouraging rather than standing in the way. His vision seems to be of a country where we all lend a hand to sorting things out and making things happen.
Coming as it does at a time of cutbacks and deficit reduction, many are suspicious that The Big Society means in practice that services will be cut or abandoned completely and replaced with people working in unpaid positions to continue to make them happen: ‘we like the job you do, but we want you to do it for nothing’. There are a lot of people that are suspicious that The Big Society is an attempt by the Government to say ‘these things aren’t our responsibility, you sort them out’.
The reality is probably somewhere in between these two positions. Certainly, large organisations are looking to replace paid members of staff with volunteers as a way of continuing to provide the services they had previously been providing, or to provide them in a different way. Some see this as a way of covering up the real effect of cuts while others see it as an opportunity for people to really become involved in running the services that they use. The hope is that by reducing the amount of services directly funded or controlled by state organisations, new locally-led organisations and groups will come to the fore.
The opportunity for any of us that really want to be involved in sorting stuff out and making things happen is that for the first time in at least a generation, the focus is shifting towards the question: ‘How do we help people to find their own solutions to problems?’
For a long time, many have felt that within mental health and disability, large organisations have failed to pay attention to the needs and wishes of individuals and groups, and have tended to create unresponsive and distant structures that haven’t fitted the ideas and aspirations of the people who receive them. As many of us know, treatment that works is the most important step to get things sorted but it isn’t the only step. It’s often the help, support and encouragement that we get from other places that makes us feel like we are truly cared about and which helps us to get on.
While this Big Society moment doesn’t answer the massive question ‘where’s the money to make things happen going to come from?’, it does create a situation where organisations, groups and projects created by communities, for communities will have a unique opportunity to be listened to and supported.
This article is exclusive to the web and accompanies the articles ‘Seven steps to making a change’ and ‘Broken of Britain: “‘Me too’ is more powerful than ‘just me’”‘ in One in Four Winter 2010