Debates about the meaning of the Government’s Big Society plan highlight some fundamental communication challenges for its supporters.
The most pressing obstacle can be seen in recent survey results, which suggest that most people do not understand the what the Big Society stands for. This has led some critics to suggest that it is being used to shield big cuts, rather than represent a policy shift that puts local communities in control of their destinies. The CIPR is currently debating this issue with its members. The dilemma has led the Government-supporting Sun to acknowledge that David Cameron ‘still has a mountain to climb to sell the Big Society to baffled Brits.’
If the public is to understand what is meant by this term, Government needs to explain its principles more clearly and highlight examples of the Big Society at work. David Cameron’s Hugo Young Lecture in 2009, which is thought to have been the public launchpad for the idea, should form the boilerplate against which key messages are shaped and delivered in future.
There also needs to be a realistic tone to these messages, which explains (as Nat Wei, the Government’s ‘Big Society tsar’ says on his blog) that the Big Society won’t be built overnight. This will help rebut claims that the project is already collapsing.
Finally, having the Government drive forward the Big Society agenda seems to fly in the face of the ‘bottom up’, grass-roots activism that it wants to see. If the Big Society and localism are to succeed, local leaders and communicators will need to be firmly in the driving seat.
If this local involvement was more visible, questions about the Big Society may be easier to answer.