I went to a briefing the other day for the Near Neighbours programme: that very rare bird, a funding programme being introduced, not cut. The details are interesting, especially for those of us in the areas covered – but the other thing that really stood out for me was that this shows in practice what the government’s ‘Big Society’ idea is meant to look like.

The programme uses a local network of providers (in this case Church of England parishes) and is designed to facilitate fairly low-key locally based projects which aim to

  1. develop positive relationships in multi-faith areas i.e. to help people from different faiths get to know and understand each other better.
  2. encourage people of different faiths, or no faith, to come together for initiatives that improve their local neighbourhood.

One of the things I’ve been wondering about is what the ‘Big Society’ agenda would look like if you were able to abstract it from the current (excessive, draconian) cuts in public expenditure. Near Neighbours I think is one answer, and quite an encouraging one. Compared to my experience of other, much much bigger, government funded projects, it seems genuinely to have got away from the dead hand of bureaucracy.

My previous experience was that governmental bodies wanted the third sector to be involved, but only on the condition that we started behaving like governmental bodies, with all the risk-aversion, caution and form-filling that involved. So the very qualities the government wanted from us – mobility, flexibility, responsiveness to local conditions – were the ones we were no longer allowed to show.

If this is different, it’s a very good thing. If it sets the tone for a different way of engaging with third sector partners, it’s a very good thing indeed. There’s no reason why a similar principle might not be used by a rather less parsimonious government on a much wider scale and for a much wider range of purposes. But of course there’s a risk: the less control you exercise, the less you can ensure that everything goes according to plan. Actually, I didn’t feel that really was the main concern; the key issue was to make sure nothing got in the papers. If the price to pay was a mediocre project with most of the money going on administration, monitoring and consultancy costs – well, so be it. Are the government really going to take that risk with anything more than small change? Maybe not – but even governmental small change makes quite a difference on the ground.