Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The UK's Big Society vs Germany's bürgerschaftliches Engagement - spot the difference

This blog post is still very much "under construction" - your comments or thoughts are all the more welcome. 

It's been very interesting crossing over from the UK to Germany in terms of witnessing the same debate around the renegotiation of the relationship between government and its citizens taking a very different shape.

The UK's Big Society
In the UK the debate was invigorated by David Cameron's 2008 "Big Society" initiative which was presented as his big, exciting and new idea even though it wasn't really his idea and it wasn't new either.

The Big Society initiative was launched in 2008, in tandem with the most drastic programme of cuts to public spending seen in the UK since the Second World War, made necessary by the high level of government debt caused by the financial crisis. That coincidence (in the temporal sense of the word) gave the Big Society initiative both a sense of urgency and a legitimacy deficit as it was easily caricatured as the government's enthusiastic support for citizens delivering public services themselves so it could reduce the services' budgets. Even more serious critics denounced it as a devious strategy to divide and rule civil society to buffer the reaction to what the government knew would be very unpopular public spending cuts accompanied by a severe recession. Some civil society organisations would welcome the Big Society initiative as empowering, thereby preventing a unified civil society backlash against public spending cuts.

Some cheered at the prospects of bottom-up, local citizen initiatives being freed from red tape. Others feared increasingly uneven development with well-to-do areas able to take care of their own and deprived areas without the indigenous resources being even more left behind. In fact the Big Society seemed to be better received in the relatively comfortable middle-class areas in South-Eastern England, but simply out of touch in the harsher reality of Northern England.

Having been part of a "Big Society" project I have experienced the reality of this. This was for one a private sector that was too preoccupied with its own troubles and therefore reluctant to fund any ongoing programme that was too complex and ambitious to easily fit their PR strategy of simple, positive messages. On the other hand was a public sector that was trying to adjust to a minimum of 25% budget cuts and  desperately looking for innovative ways to provide the same amount of service with less. This defensive position certainly didn't increase the propensity to invest in some new initiative that didn't provide quick, direct, practical benefits. And the Big Society might be made out to be a lot of things but it is really not a quick-fix solution. If it should have been able to stand any chance of survival, the "Big Society" should have been launched 5 years ago but putting it out in the UK's economic climate of 2008 gave it a lethal birth defect. Why wasn't it launched earlier then? This article on the idea of the relational state suggests that the previous Labour government was too statist and institutional in its focus because it wanted to reduce social inequality mainly via redistribution of wealth. As a result it neglected the importance of human relationships for creating social impact. I imagine the Big Society idea would have seemed incompatible with Labour's approach to reducing social inequality.

Another perspective on why the Big Society was never able to take off is suggested by Tom Clark's article on the size of public sector outsourcing in the UK. Public sector commissioning contracts for public services are being awarded increasingly to a small number of multi-purpose companies like SERCO or G4S who provide all the services a government could possibly be looking for - from schools and health care to back-to-work programmes. As was demonstrated by last year's Work Programme contracting process, civil society-based organisations, who have the track record and the community-connections which are so crucial to creating social impact and solving society's "wicked problems", stand little chance of being awarded these contracts because they don't have the financial clout to pay the initial costs up front. It does strengthen the cynics' argument that the Big Society initiative was merely about offloading more government responsibilities onto its citizens while providing those citizens with ever fewer tools to do the work.

Germany's "bürgerschaftliches Engagement" (civic engagement)
In Germany the debate has been conducted under the headings of "befähigender Staat" (enabling state) and "bürgerschaftliches Engagement". The economic underpinnings and general climate surrounding the discussion couldn't be more different from that of the UK. Even though many local authorities are struggling too, federal tax income has never been higher and the labour market hasn't been as good in decades.

However, German society is facing quite the demographic and social cliff as its baby boomers are about to retire en masse with very few young workers remaining to pay for their parents' social and healthcare services and pensions. Some predict a labour shortage of some 7 million workers by 2030. Many rural areas and smaller towns and cities outside the economic heartlands are emptying at a drastic rate and are facing the collapse of their service infrastructures. There's a sense of "enjoy the now because the future can only get worse".

The question here is whether these relatively good times will be used to invest in the social infrastructure supporting increased civic engagement, which would pay off in the tough times ahead. Germany's challenge is that of how to realize a culture change towards more individual and communal citizen initiative rather than waiting or relying on government initiative. How can that be encouraged before it's too late and public services have to be cut back even more? The key to this culture change lies in the formation and expansion of relationships between diverse social networks. In these networks new possibilities can be imagined and realised. This culture change is already in progress and driven forward by actors like the national Network for Civic Engagement (BBE). Crucial to the way this process progresses are the German "Wohlfahrtsverbände" or charitable organisations. These organisations have a long history, going back to the turn of the 19th century, and have become over the years truly massive, national operations, funded mainly by various social and health-related public service contracts. One of them, the German Caritas, is one of the country's largest employer. They are the reason why private sector companies like SERCO and G4S are not yet very prominent in Germany.

But are they better at fostering a new relationship between government and citizens? They are trying to find new, user-enabling approaches to providing their services and due to their charitable status they can rely on many volunteers. However, they have an incentive to discourage their volunteers' initiative if it threatens their public service contracts.

As I wrote in the beginning, this post is still in draft form. So your comments are even more welcome!

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