When David Cameron first announced the Big Society, many social enterprises, voluntary sector organisations and charities kept an open mind. If the Big Society is as advertised and involves genuine local empowerment rather than an attempt to get public services on the cheap, then it could be a great step forward.
We would welcome the opportunity to deliver more community-designed and community-led public services. Consequently, a lot of organisations like ours took the view that we would wait and see.
Proposals put forward by the Department of Communities and Local Government in July suggest that communities will be given the power to bid to run local public services. We understand that the proposals will take shape between November 2010 and a localism bill in November 2011.
However, the ability of communities to deliver on the Big Society is a time-limited offer, and it expires six months before the bill can be passed into law. This is due to what some third sector commentators are calling 'the cliff' in March 2011.
Local Authorities are now looking at how to make massive cuts in their spending. Among the easiest victims are the annual grant programmes on which many newly-started social enterprises, local voluntary and community organisations rely for their existence. Many organisations' grants will cease for good in March 2011 causing many of these organisations to fold. This will destroy both the capacity and capability of communities to respond to the Big Society agenda.
Even if we wish away or ignore the issue of 'the cliff', getting social enterprises and community organisations to bid for local authority contracts will quickly hit a more intractable barrier: local authorities genuinely struggle to let contracts that reflect Big Society type outcomes- often locking out the very organisations that the government says it wants to include.
Many councils let contracts for the things they think they want to buy – but not what they want to achieve. In our sector – transport – a council might want to take 1,000 pupils to school. That council normally won't let a contract for 1,000 pupils but for 30 buses. There is no room for enterprise and innovation. There is no room for creative thinking. There is no room for the Big Society.
A social enterprise approach would support the community to explore 'where do you need to go?' and ask questions like 'who says it has to be a bus?' or 'can we train people from our neighbourhood who are long-term unemployed to be the bus drivers?' This way you get genuine innovation, often with spectacular savings to the public purse.
Local authorities don't run procurement processes like that very often.
If the idea of the Big Society is to take hold, the government needs to act fast to articulate what it means in practice, take steps to mitigate 'the cliff' and support local authorities to understand how they can commission community-led public services.
A great start would be to support the public services (social enterprise and social value) bill – a private members' bill presented by Chris White that would ensure local authority contracts must include provisions relating to social outcomes and social value.
The vision of social enterprises and community organisations becoming an integral part of Big Society will only be fully realised in the delivery of public services if the innovation and passion of these organisations is allowed to flourish. This requires an enlightened procurement and commissioning process as a simple prerequisite.
The alternative for the Big Society to acting now is bleak; a forgotten policy amid the ruins of a once thriving community sector, with private companies descending from the sidelines to deliver public services for the benefit only of shareholders.
Dai Powell is the chief executive of public transport company, HCT