I have deliberatley crafted my life so that I have a line-of-sight on how things are playing out. So what am I seeing, in January 2011?
THE COMMUNITY? At the ultra-local level, during three evenings spent in residents' kitchens and peeling community-centres, the cuts are beginning to be noticed. Councils are proving a bit Neanderthal, as everyone expected. So rather than cut a few posts that nobody will notice, they pull their funding for lollipop men and ladies. These people work for about a fiver an hour and are, literally, highly visible. One major accident and there will be clamour to get them back. Let's hope it doesn't happen!
LOCAL GOVERNMENT? One level up, in the Council, they are scratching their heads about how to approach the cuts intelligently. Although in opposition in Suffolk, I have decided, where politically possible, to help where I can. Few Councillors or senior officers know anything about social enterprise or charity sectors. So I try, where I can, to help them think through how to engage in a way that enables SE and charities as alternative providers - rather than eviscerating them as has happened in many parts of the UK (e.g. Nottingham City Council wiping half of its homelessness budget in one go - clever).
IN THE SE AND THIRD SECTOR? Among the third sector and social enterprise sector, blood-pressure is running high. Many organisations are realising, fairly late in the day, that they are out of road and urgently looking for a way out. Few people I know are not in some kind of merger or deep-partnership conversation. All talk of 'independence', seemingly forgotten as CEOs and their Boards face the Void.
THE WIDER PUBLIC SECTOR? As PCTs begin their death-throes, before our eyes, they are, like any endangered being, going through the stages of grief. Disbelief has been replaced by anger and, in some cases, some fairly shitty behaviour. Particularly towards some of the new Right to Requests, which, unlike them, will escape the grave. While I think Lansley is daft to do away with them in one go, I can see why he thinks they are a waste of space. Not a lot I have seen leads me to believe they are adding much value.
THE COMMENTARIAT? The wider commentariat and policy community - of which I am a sort of partcipant-onlooker - is either obsessed with the cuts and what this all means - or working out how we turn the language of new approaches into a tangible approaches. The problem is that many of the best solutions - like the stuff being pioneered by social enterprises and charities - are SO radical (e.g. Partciple's stuff ) that you can't just jump to them immediately. You need bridges over the ravine, not just beautiful stuff growing on the other side). Politicians are left trying - and often failing - to think about how to transition in a managable way.
MY VIEW? Indeed it were possible to bridge from Public Services Mark I to Mark II in a straightforward way, replacing one set of ideas, people and systems with another, we'd all be in clover. In truth, we're looking at replacing a Machine with a new Eco-System, some of which is beyond the control of anybody. The future quality of life will, in reality, be very tricky to create, even with their fulsome participation. If the Big Society is right in one regard, it's that change won't happen in the way it always has in the past.