The 'Big Society', secular horizontality and, of course, Team Around the Child

ed_comm'I am merely advocating that we gently and determinedly hijack the coalition's Big Society in order to shift the balance towards horizontality as far as we can.'

Editorial comment: I have not read in detail about the UK coalition government's Big Society, but I get the general idea of reducing the power and influence of the state and increasing the power and influence of the community in a move called localism.

I am also very aware that news of this intended revolution – which it would be if it should eventually come to pass in its full measure – comes to us at a time of near financial collapse in the country and then in our public services. This coincidence inevitably makes many of us very suspicious that localism is merely a cheap option in which many thousands of vulnerable people will be made to suffer as they pay for the failure of government and the (still rich) financial sector.

Ever an optimist, and perhaps an unashamed opportunist in a good cause, I would want to take this 'Big Society' initiative, regardless of what the coalition government intends it to be, as an open door through which we can walk bravely towards the sort of world we want and away from all the ills of institutional, disempowering and stagnant public service provision.

I want a move away from verticality and towards horizontality. We are conditioned from toddlerhood to vertical and hierarchical power structures: the prime minister or president at the top and the electorate at the bottom (voting in the belief it could really make a difference!); the multi-national bosses at the top and the consumers at the bottom gulled into buying mountains of stuff they do not need; this or that god at the top and sinning souls at the bottom doing as they are told in fear of eternal punishment; generals at the top and squaddies at the bottom facing extreme penalties for disobeying their superiors. Verticality is characterised by power, control and influence extending relentlessly down while money and privilege flow ever upwards. There is no intent in these hierarchies for people like you and me to lead rich and rewarding lives in which we are genuinely free to grow ever more human.

Could the 'Big Society', whether the coalition government approves or not, create a space in which the people in the bottom layers of these power pyramids work together to create secular and horizontal structures of co-operation and mutual helpfulness building new organisations that promote human-scale groups, communities and societies? Here we would be less subject to and less reliant on those above and strong enough to welcome, embrace and support the most vulnerable and deprived members of this true society.

I have used the term 'human scale' above to suggest that we need to move away from massive, bureaucratic organisations that attempt to cater for whole populations of millions and generate instead people-friendly systems for smaller and more manageable localities in which being lost or downtrodden is much less likely. While remaining secular, this version of a bigger and better society would welcome all religions but resist any of them becoming part of the administration.

There would be much new work for the voluntary sector operating within agreed standards and with adequate national and local funding. But there are opportunities for structural change here too. It is a common paradox that many charity workers have the benefit of good salaries, warm and safe offices, and expense account cars in which to travel to support people in poverty, people who have no homes, people who are disempowered and disenfranchised by disability, mental illness – or whatever circumstance it is that makes 'them' dependent on 'us'. Many voluntary organisations have the same top-down approach that I want to move away from and they would be invited to examine their own verticality. I can imagine some chief execs struggling hard to defend their small palaces.

Any revolution must come from seeds and it is interesting to wonder where they are to be found. This is not my field of expertise but I would look toward the co-operative movement, 'green' organisations, the best parts of multi-cultural and multi-ethnic neighbourhoods and I would certainly look within public services for all those people who work genuinely for the good of others without wanting fat salaries. Successful small charities that have not gone down the bureaucratic and hierarchical road would surely be a helpful guide to secular horizontality.

Coming down to the small and local scale and onto ground where I have a firmer footing, the Team Around the Child approach (TAC) is a modest example of this sort of horizontal, bigger and better society. In this approach statutory, voluntary and private agencies in each locality are invited to work with each other to create a horizontal, multi-agency partnership from which can emerge an integrated and seamless pathway for children with disabilities and their families. This collective effort builds the environment in which parent or young person and two or three grass-roots practitioners can join together in the child's TAC to take real control of the support being offered to each child and family. Each TAC represents a genuine partnership of equals in the horizontal plane, is founded in helpful relationships of familiarity, empathy, honesty, trust and respect and allows people to work co-operatively together with creativity, imagination and resourcefulness towards a shared vision.

This quest for secular horizontality is not a matter of left or right ideologies; I do not trust this Tory-Lib Dem coalition to look after vulnerable people and I lost faith in New Labour when it invaded Iraq. In my Big Society people will strive continually to wriggle out from under these controlling and self-serving, professional politicians who insist on wanting to be our leaders without any qualifications for the task.

There is no suggestion here that we can eliminate verticality. I am merely advocating that we gently and determinedly hijack the coalition's Big Society in order to shift the balance towards horizontality as far as we can. An element of this for us in the field of childhood disability, when we are dealing with particular challenges, is to look carefully at any exploitation or manipulation in the vertical plane that is causing, maintaining or worsening the problem and at the same time, as an antidote, do what we can to enrich and strengthen the horizontal structures – horizontal structures that empower children and families, reduce prejudice, make a fairer distribution of resources and help make life worth living. In my localism, in my bigger and better society, organisations that support children and families would learn to look up to their senior management and elected officers and ask not 'What can we do for you?' but 'What will you do for us!'

Your comments welcome.

Peter Limbrick.

September 2011















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