Earlier this week, David Cameron attempted to breathe new life into the Big Society with the announcement of a £10m Social Action Fund, as part of the government’s Giving White Paper. Yet in the prolonged arguments over the prime minister’s flagship concept, there has been almost no mention of the professions and national institutions that are best suited to its ends.
Doctors, engineers, teachers and many more professional groups are defined by their distinctive contributions to civic society and to public services. Furthermore, these professional bodies and societies are self-funded, charitable organisations. They provide strong, rewarding professional and social networks which link practitioners’ offices, chambers and hospitals throughout the country.
These great institutions are part of our national identity, and in true British style, their virtues remain understated. Sustained by loyal, usually lifelong and often publicity-averse members, advertising these virtues doesn’t come naturally.
Avner Offer’s concept of the economy of regard—the non-market economy characterised by reciprocal giving and support—has yet to be recognised in this professional world. Yet all its characteristics and benefits are apparent here. The professional and social ties at the Royal Institute of British Architects, for example, are at the heart of commitments by architects to validating university examinations, setting training and professional development standards and to maintaining their globally valued awards. Institutions survive and prosper through the imagination and generosity of their members in these areas.
The regard of members for their professional institutions increases the occasions when they exercise real scrutiny and authority over members’ efforts to keep themselves up to date, set and implement practice standards and make distinctive contributions to government policy. Tick box tokenism is corrosive.
Measured devolution of some responsibilities from expensive government to these cost-effective charitable professional bodies, under the watchful eye of regulators, is attractive. The latter do their work at the coalface of the relevant public services. It is hard for government alone to reach these areas where policy has an impact.
What’s more, the values of these national institutions fit very well with civic conservatism and the Big Society. David Halpern, director of the Behavioural Change Unit at the Cabinet Office, remarked that the voluntary sector has “found a way of harnessing the latent capacities of citizens”; the same could…