The Big Society

What can business do to contribute to the big society ideal formed by the government? That was the main question primed towards a small audience of business leaders by Business In The Community at an event in Manchester tonight.  I hadn’t really given it much thought previously, however in the surroundings of Manchester Business School and in the company of some bright minds we attempted to try and identify just some of the facilitators and barriers.

What’s obvious is that there are no easy answers or quick fixes.  There is a massive societal shift needed. Who will move first?  Is competition too fierce in the global economy now for us to adopt these holistic ideals?  There were some interesting points made, however it was clear that it won’t be easy to get quick traction.  Nevertheless, here’s a few of the points I thought relevant (in no particular order).

  • Will people be prepared to work less hours for less pay to see more people in employment? - Tough one and the government might not like the answer.  We live in an age of consumption.  Of acquiring things.  My device is better than your device.  My TV is bigger than your TV.  Will people be prepared to trade down for the bigger good?
  • There’s no financial incentive. You really want to motivate a businessperson to get involved, show them an opportunity, not a draw on their time.
  • The bulk of business people represented on panels like this are normally large and successful. You only needed to see the audience in the room tonight.  All Gen X.  Board Directors in successful businesses.  You wont hear the view of  SME’s who make up 99.8% of business.  They are the ones you need engaged too as they employ half the UK workforce and can be more inciteful as to the conditions they would need to donate their time.
  • If the Big society makes us globally uncompetitive, forget it. Harsh, however social investments rely on economic prosperity, a fine balance.
  • Do Generation Y care like Generation X do? Generation Y (digital natives) have a completely different outlook on life.  They are pursuing fame and instant fortune (bit stereotypical I know), however this may get in the way of their ambitions.  You have to incentivise at all levels to get change happening.
  • You need some new innovation in there somewhere. Salami slicing public sector expenditure and then shifting the burden to business, just isn’t on.  We all know the public sector is hugely inefficient in many areas.  Why not incentivise private sector business to drive savings and efficiency in public sector?
  • Get local government to spend more of their grant with local businesses, not on national contracts. They can then insist on some of the big society ideals as part of the supply agreement.  Seen it done already and it works.
  • The future isn’t public or private. It’s a fusion of both in the big society.  A fusion of Enterprise.  Rip down the barriers to enterprise.  Make public sector procurement easier.  Making the planning process easier for businesses to build the premises they need.  By expanding, there will be more jobs in the economy.  Carving up current jobs – in my view – just isn’t the answer.
  • Do people have the time for all this? People are pressured.  T.A.T. rules.  Time is at a premium.  Work/Life blend is poor.

I’m not negative about it, just realistic. I’d love to see a society, which is more like Japan for example.  Purposeful.  Respectful.  More societal in its outlook.  However, people will need to see quick and early wins for this one to make it’s way out of the manifesto and into everyday practice.  It’s a big job, however a worthy aim.  What do you think?