A civil servant writes

So, in response to the AHRC’s continuing to say nothing much you’d want to hear about this Big Society business, there is another petition – this one pointing its basal paragraphs in the direction of Rick Rylance’s head.

I was discussing the whole sorry affair recently with a friend who is a civil servant with a policy role. (Yes, you’re quite right. As a clueless humanities academic, I should have no idea that any such activity as government administration even exists, and should spend the entire time eating toasted buttered punts in the ivy-lined seclusion of a book-clad turret or something. My apologies.)

Anyway. With her permission, I’m going to quote part of her response verbatim here. I think it usefully illustrates how those of us who live in Thinkyworld need to bear in mind that other people involved in the decision-making process don’t necessarily share our starting assumptions, are almost bound not to share our working context, and may tend to stare at us in some confusion. It’s also as decent enough place from which to start thinking about policy questions more broadly. (Which is not even remotely what I was supposed to be devoting this blog to, but I can’t think of anything interesting to say about the Blagden-Gilpin experiments at the moment.)

Let’s start with the position that I, and the several thousand signatories to the original Brooks petition, and more than 25 learned societies have adopted. The AHRC Delivery Plan formally and openly endorses a Conservative Party electoral slogan; this is unacceptable; the obviousness of its unacceptability is mind-bending.

To my correspondent, it’s a bit more complicated.

Yes, it’s a Conservative party policy (actually, they are keen to emphasise, it’s not a “policy” but an “approach to government” – but I’ll spare you the details). But given they are in Government, doesn’t that make it a Government policy? I’m slightly unclear how you can accept that research can and should influence and inform policy, but argue that this particular policy is somehow different. […]

[G]iven that (we’d hope) the winning party tends to implement the policies it campaigned on during the election, how can we separate the two?

Which is fair enough. Like a couple of other people, I grasped at the term “party-political” while trying to explain why, unlike more subtle forms of political influence (which deserve serious discussion), the BS-language in the Delivery Plan must straight away be classed as mind-bendingly objectionable. The “political”/“party-political” distinction is the wrong one for that particular job. (In my defence, my mind was all bent at the time.)

Here’s a better presentation. “Big Society” – commonly elaborated as “Big Society, Not Big Government” – was coined as an electoral slogan. Its primary purpose is to get people to vote Conservative. The Conservatives, though they are approximately in government, continue regularly to contest elections. Manifestly, the AHRC should not spend money to “contribute” (in the words of the Delivery Plan) to their turnout.

My correspondent, again, doesn’t see it as clear-cut:

However hard you [as a civil servant] try to draw a line in your head – for example between making [government] policies work better (fine) and making people like the Tories more (not fine) – in practice they are hard to keep separate. The same goes for “Big Society” the election campaign slogan and “Big Society” the idea and accompanying collection of policies […]

“Big Society” basically pulls together lots of things Tories (and some Lib Dems) like – localism, a different role for the state (smaller, but the difference is more than size), more voluntarism, taking personal responsibility, efficiency and choice through more competition (in public service provision), etc.

Most people, I suspect, would end up with something like this view if their job was to enact Government policy. It’s a view which we have to engage with, if we want to end up with anything other than the conclusion that everybody hates us because they’re evil.

By “engage with”, of course, I mean “steadfastly and unblinkingly refuse to take at face value.” Because that, you see, is what we are paid good money for.

If you probe the evolution of the “Big Society” with various standard tools of the humanities trade (a rhetorician’s oscilloscope is ideal, provided you keep a parliamentary history fishknife for the messy bits), you’ll find that its function is predominantly electoral to a degree that’s rarely seen (although the same, as My Lot keep pointing out, would have applied to “Third Way” during its brief co-option by the Blair people in the late 90s). The chief point of the BS initiative is to maximise support across the spectrum of public sentiment, by presenting major state spending reductions in terms that don’t imply the collapse of social infrastructure. It may also, conveniently, make life complicated for any opposing party which wants to promote a social-voluntarist platform.

I am not a Tory, as you will have observed from the striations between my median and axial fins. But it’s not exactly the height of subversion to assert that the Conservatives have engineered an electoral strategy. (I’d have done the same myself, in the circumstances.) Said strategy, being a thing with agency in the world, ought to be studied.

Carefully.

Contrary to the impression the AHRC appears to be trying to give, “The Big Society” is not social voluntarism in general. Anyone who doesn’t see the necessity of the distinction is not doing the work of an academic.

Gordon Finlayson recently published a good piece on (or, rather, leading mercifully away from) this stuff. In brief: co-opting the BS makes no sense even from self-interest, because whoever’s claiming to be the Government a couple of years from now will have ditched it; all of this is distracting us dangerously from general questions of governmental influence on research, and specific questions about why the AHRC wants to do social policy stuff anyway.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with studying the BS, if you have the tools to do so. It’s too transient to be worth a major programme, but might make for a decent ed. vol., I suppose. Or a day conference. Next month, just across the road from me, some social policy researchers, and people working for NGOs, and political types and whatnot are going to try this out. The meeting’s being organised by CRESC, which is core funded by the ESRC, and its title is “The Big Society?” That thing on the end of the phrase there bears examination. It’s what we in the trade call a question mark or eroteme: properly used, it can convey elements of uncertainty, dissent, or critical distance. It’s a surprisingly handy little gadget for its size.

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2 Responses to A civil servant writes

  1. Thom Brooks says:

    This is a terrific post and my thanks for noting these comments from the civil servant friend. Perhaps you might state your reply to her differently. Labour governments oversaw the inclusion of climate change in various research council documents. This is not unacceptable because the party does not “own” the green agenda (irrespective of whether they are trusted more on the topic than other parties). Indeed, the Conservatives claim to run the most green government ever.

    The difference with the Big Society is that is squarely the political campaign slogan of a single party. While research councils have addressed government concerns in the past, none have incorporated a political party’s campaign slogan in their delivery plan as explicitly as the AHRC has done. Even if your friend continues to find nothing of concern in general, perhaps she will be persuaded that there is reason for concern given that never before has this line been crossed. If this analysis is correct, then the AHRC delivery plan is actually a watershed moment of sorts. This is what has inspired literally thosands to join the petition in an unprecedented show of protest. Moreover, this has been led by members of the AHRC’s own Peer Review College.

    The AHRC does appear to be crossing a line that other research councils have not crossed. This has not gone unnoticed by the AHRC’s Peer Review College. Nor has it gone unnoticed by thousands of colleagues, perhaps including yourself as well. This is what makes this case so different.

  2. Thom Brooks says:

    Alternatively, if your civil servant friend is correct and “the Big Society” is “an approach” to government and not a public policy as such, then there is much cause for concern once again.

    The position may have been the Big Society is no longer problematic because it has become a policy post-election. However, if it has always been about a particular approach to governing and not a policy as such, then the idea that the Big Society is now ok (because it is a political policy now) fails because it is not and has never been a policy.

    The worry we have been left — on this view — with is that the AHRC is actually not identifying a political policy as part of their delivery plan, but it has singled out one party’s approach to government.

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