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Donald Lenihan

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Will David Cameron's 'Big Society' Work in Ottawa?

Posted: 09/22/11 10:17 AM ET

British Prime Minister David Cameron is in Ottawa today, where he will address Canada's Parliament, and I'm delighted. Maybe he'll light a policy fire under the Harper government.

At a time when Big Ideas seem to be out of fashion, Cameron is definitely a Big Ideas guy -- or perhaps I should say, Big Idea guy, as he is focused on one Big Idea, which he calls "Big Society."

Big Society could be called the counterpoint to Big Government. It is about challenging and empowering citizens and civil society to play a much bigger role in problem-solving by agreeing to get Big Government out of the way.

But Cameron is no Margaret Thatcher. If he agrees that Big Government diverts citizens from taking responsibility, his solution is not to dismantle the "nanny state" or throw Brits into the deep end of the pool, forcing them to sink or swim.

Instead, Cameron believes that belonging to a community is a vital part of human nature and that, when given the chance, people display a natural willingness to work together as a community to solve problems. Big Society is about creating the right environment for this to happen.

In this, Cameron is much closer to the conservative tradition than Thatcher, who famously denied that "society" existed, yet seems to have had no trouble believing that markets were everywhere and invested with almost mystical powers.

Cameron's approach is nicely illustrated by Total Place, one of the coalition government's flagship initiatives. The object is to take a community, such as Birmingham, map all the government services and money that flows into it, then let the community review the findings to identify areas of duplication, overlap or waste, and to re-budget how public money should be used to align services more adequately with the community's priorities and needs.

I am a fan of Cameron's Big Society. It focuses attention on the deep sense of identification that people have with their communities and raises the question of how to leverage their natural desire to work together to solve problems, such as allowing real bottom-up decision-making. As such, Big Society is an ambitious, imaginative and, potentially, transformative idea.

It's also worth noting that this community approach should be identified with neither the left nor the right. As Brian Brown makes clear in The New Atlantis, when it comes to local government, both sides have had their champions. On the left, Jane Jacobs, the late great dean of communities, comes to mind.

Nevertheless, all is not well in Cameron's Big Society. I attended a United Nations' roundtable in Vienna this summer, where 28 countries and seven international organizations gathered to discuss community-building and public engagement. The good news is that countries as diverse as Nigeria and Australia agreed on the need for bottom-up decision-making and community engagement. But when I raised Cameron's Big Society as an example, and, more specifically, the Total Place initiative, the two British delegates blanched. This wasn't just a partisan reflex.

They told us how several key communities in the Total Place project -- particularly from the north of England -- had pulled out in protest over what they saw as a thinly veiled effort at cost-cutting and off-loading. In their view, Big Society and Total Place is a wolf in sheep's clothing. First and foremost, they said, the Cameron government is focused on reducing public debt and Cameron's officials have decided that the easiest path is to free themselves of their obligations to cities. Big Society provides the perfect opportunity.

I found myself wincing. On one hand, people like me argue that federal and provincial governments must recognize the growing importance of local governments, not just as service providers, but as policy makers. The key policy goals everyone wants to achieve -- goals like healthy communities, sustainable development, innovation and poverty reduction -- will not be achieved without public participation, and this is most likely to happen by engaging people at the local level. A provincial government may preach about the need to reduce obesity or fight climate change, but it is local governments that get people on their bikes or using blue boxes.

Nevertheless, the report from Vienna carries a real lesson. We should worry about trying to move too far too fast on community empowerment, especially in times of fiscal tightening. It is fraught with risk. When senior managers in provincial or federal governments are under pressure to cut their budgets, local governments often bear the brunt. Thus, when Paul Martin slashed spending in 1995, he did it by cutting transfers to the provinces, who, predictably, passed the cuts along to municipalities. Initiatives like Big Society and Total Place provide a perfect smokescreen for this kind of off-loading.

The Harper government has told us that restraint is coming. People like me believe that this should be offset by a new emphasis on community engagement. If we want solutions to issues that are effective and affordable, we need to tap the collaborative impulse within communities that leads to innovation and collective action. But putting cost-cutting and community empowerment side-by-side is a dangerous game. It can produce the perfect storm of crass political opportunism, which then devastates the very communities it was supposed to save.

David Cameron is a man worth hearing from. While he's in town, it would be nice if he shared with us some candid thoughts on the pros and cons of Big Society and any lessons learned on how to balance and align the competing forces of empowerment and fiscal restraint. I am all ears.