‘Crowding out’ is the notion that if the state withdraws, others will rush in to fill the gap. It’s popular with big society thinkers. They may be wrong when it comes to volunteers crowding in, according to the authors of Public Spending and Volunteering: "The Big Society", Crowding Out, and Volunteering Capital.
In summary, the “‘Big Society’ plan is based on the idea that granting more freedom to local communities and volunteers will compensate for a withdrawal of public agencies and spending. (...) Contrary to conventional wisdom, our results suggest that volunteering, by the individuals in the actively working population, declines when government intervention is decreased.” Makes sense to me, though the algebra in this academic paper is way beyond me.
A few years ago, I assumed I was living at a time when the direction of travel was genuinely in the direction of community empowerment. But an interesting paper that I found (Empowerment or Abandonment? Prospects for Neighbourhood Revitalization under the Big Society) thanks to the NCIA newsletter, suggests things may have been going the other way since the final years of New Labour.
Taking Bristol and Baltimore as case studies, it argues that Bristol’s Neighbourhood Partnerships mark a weakening of community participation in neighbourhood governance (can an area with a population of up to 30,000 really be a neighbourhood?), a diminishing of community ‘voice’, and the beginning of a move to the politics of self-help. Across the Atlantic, Baltimore is a case study for what happens when the neoliberal road, on which the paper suggests Bristol may be taking a first step, is travelled to the end—a scary place where neighbourhood regeneration is based not on need, but asset values. The most ‘distressed’ neighbourhoods are designated for demolition, and philanthropic foundations concentrate their resources in a small handful of neighbourhoods, the strategy being to support home ownership and housing markets, with additional subsidy for developers and investors.
Meanwhile, in another part of the Big Society wood, all the local authority people we were helping to get out and act more on what their local communities said are now being urged to ‘spin out’ (older people like me may find the term ‘buy-out’ means more to them) and turn their services into social enterprises. The think-tank set up to boost this activity is the Transition Institute. Its ‘starting point’ document is Social Value Ethos, a how-to manual for would-be spinners-out, or ‘emerging public sector entrepreneurs’. An unscientific search for some key words in this document suggests that the spinners-out needn’t bother themselves with things like empowerment. There is no reference to ‘community involvement’; the six references to ‘empowerment’ are in the context of empowering staff, not users; but ‘co-production’ is mentioned once, which is nice. And to set the issue usefully in context, Chris White MP writes in the foreword: “ . . . in difficult economic times like these we need services which can offer good quality public services with that little bit extra, that engage with and that respond to their communities’ needs." I suppose that if responding to communities’ needs is just that ‘little bit extra’, you don’t need to worry too much about empowering them.