The ‘Big Society’ is a defining policy of the Coalition Government and David Cameron’s big idea. It is also a government-led programme for structural change. In this report, nef analyses the opportunities and threats of the ‘Big Society’ vision, and how it will effect businesses, the third sector and democracy.

What is the ‘Big Society’?

The ‘Big Society’ is the Government’s big idea and a programme for structural change. The goal is to devolve power to the lowest possible level and use the state to galvanise community engagement and ‘social renewal’.

The new austerity

The ‘Big Society’ idea goes hand in hand with deep cuts in public spending. The cuts are only feasible alongside a strategy for shifting responsibility away from the state – to individuals, small groups, charities, philanthropists, local enterprise and big business.

The cumulative effects of the spending cuts will have a strong influence on the way the ‘Big Society’ is realised. There will be many more people out of work, facing a punitive benefits system and drastically pared-down public services, and more polarisation between rich and poor neighbourhoods. Unpaid labour and the charitable and voluntary sectors are due to fill the gaps left by public services, providing support to increasing numbers of poor, jobless, insecure and unsupported individuals and families.

How will the ‘Big Society’ work?

There is no master plan or blueprint for the ‘Big Society’, because the Government says it wants decisions to be taken locally. There are, however, three core components: ‘empowering communities’, ‘opening up public services’ and ‘promoting social action’.

A suite of government-backed initiatives is intended to help build the ‘Big Society’, including a ‘Big Society Bank’, 5,000 ‘community organisers’, a ‘Big Society Network’, a national ‘Citizens’ Service’, four ‘vanguard communities’, a rebranded government Office for Civil Society, and structural reform plans, with six departmental priorities including ‘supporting the building of the Big Society’.
Where do the ideas come from?

The ideas behind the ‘Big Society’ are traced back by some to John Locke, Edmund Burke, William Cobbett, Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin. More recent influences include American conservative communitarians who call for a return to ‘community and civic order’.

What do people make of it so far?

Less than half the population (45 per cent) has heard of the ‘Big Society’, although there is strong support for the idea of people ‘pulling together’ to improve things locally. So far, most commentators warmly welcome the vision of more local control and action, and more participation by citizens and community-based groups. There are worries that small local organisations will find the challenge too burdensome, that the poorest and most marginalised citizens will be least able to reap any benefits, and that public spending cuts will prevent the ideals of the ‘Big Society’ from being realised in any plausible form.

What’s good about it?

There are strong, sensible ideas at the heart of the ‘Big Society’ vision, many of them developed and promoted by nef as part of our work to build a sustainable economy. The progressive potential of the ‘Big Society’ lies in:

  • Encouraging citizens’ involvement and action
  • Recognising that everyone has assets, not just problems
  • Building and strengthening social networks
  • Using local knowledge to get better results
  • Offering ways of transforming the welfare state.

What are the big challenges?

For all its potential, the ‘Big Society’ raises a lot of questions, which become more urgent and worrying in the light of public spending cuts. The main challenges are these:

  • Social justice, equality and cohesion. Not everyone can take part and benefit as easily as everyone else, because the conditions that make it possible are not equally distributed. This applies to capacity, whether individuals are able to participate; access, who can join in and who gets left out; and how much time people have to play a meaningful part in the ‘Big Society’. The combined effects of localisation and fiscal retrenchment threaten to undermine the Government’s tenet that we are ‘all in this together’.
  • Economic policy and spending cuts. The ‘Big Society’ will be profoundly influenced by the new austerity; it is also intended to make the new austerity politically feasible. The combined consequences of harsh spending cuts and a shift of responsibility from the state to ‘civil society’ should leave no doubt that the ‘Big Society’ and the Government’s economic policies are interdependent.
  • Dangers of a shrinking state. Together, plans for a ‘Big Society’ and spending cuts on an unprecedented scale seem to mark the end of the post war settlement. We move from pooling responsibility through the machinery of a democratic state to dividing it between individuals, groups, localities and organisations in the private and voluntary sectors. It is not clear how the rights of individuals will be protected, essential services guaranteed, or those who are poor, powerless and marginalised defended against those who are better off. If the state is pruned so drastically that it is neither big nor strong enough to do this, we shall end up with a more troubled and diminished society, not a bigger one.
  • Impact on community and third-sector organisations. The ‘Big Society’ may be at odds with the character and purpose of many groups and organisations. People usually choose to participate in community activities when they find them optional, small-scale, convivial and life-enhancing, but many of the Government’s plans for supporting civil society are conditional, formalised, complicated and hard graft. The drive towards growth and commodification may also threaten the diversity, spontaneity and free spirit of civil society. A major concern is that efforts to reduce the deficit will undermine the very networks and groups that are most needed as life gets tougher for those who are already disadvantaged.
  • The role of business. The doors are open for big corporations to take over state functions – by providing backroom support and running services. There are dangers that for-profit businesses will change the ethos, purpose and outcomes of services, with negative effects on the quality of life and opportunities of those who are most in need. There are also worries that big business will drive out smaller non-profit organisations, which could otherwise provide contracted-out services with more flexibility and local knowledge.
  • Where – and how – does the buck stop? If power is devolved and responsibility shifted from the state to the private and third sectors, who can be held accountable, where are the audit trails and how can these be identified and followed? It is hard to imagine how an indeterminate number of infinitely varied organisations can be knitted into an accountability framework, but the problem can’t be ignored. Things are bound to go wrong and, without accountability, there will be no way of building up public confidence and trust.

How to make the best of the ‘Big Society’

The ‘Big Society’ is deliberately open-ended. It can be seen as an opportunity to be seized – to define and shape it ourselves. Here we set out ideas, many developed by nef, to fill in the gaps and make the best of the big idea. They depend, however, on the government revising its policies on public spending cuts to provide consistent and adequate support for local government, community groups and third-sector organisations.

  • Establish clear goals. The overarching goals of the ‘Big Society’ should be social justice and well-being for all, anchored in a shared understanding of how the ‘Big Society’ will help to achieve them.
  • Make sure everyone has a fair chance to participate and benefit. The ‘Big Society’ must be for everyone, which means making sure that everyone has enough capacity to participate and sufficient access to networks, groups and other community-based assets, with paid and unpaid time more evenly distributed across the working population, especially between women and men. Special efforts will be needed to include those who are currently marginalised, and to support small local groups and voluntary organisations.
  • Move towards a much shorter working week. The ‘Big Society’ implies a big demand for unpaid, discretionary time. A slow but steady move towards a much shorter paid working week could help to spread opportunities for paid employment, as well as time for unpaid activities as parents, carers, friends, neighbours and citizens.
  • Make co-production the standard way of getting things done. There is no point shifting functions to independent organisations if they replicate discredited models of planning and delivery. Co-production offers a route to more empowering, effective, preventative and cost-efficient services. ‘Providers’ and ‘users’ work together with carers and others in an equal and reciprocal partnership, pooling different kinds of knowledge and skill. Professionals will need to change the way they operate – working with people, rather than doing things to or for them.
  • Make it accountable and measure what matters. People should know how responsibilities are shared out and how public resources are expended, to what purpose, by whom and with what results. There should be clear lines of accountability and appropriate methods of assessment, redefining efficiency and success. What should count are not just short-term financial effects, but the wider and longer-term impacts on individuals and groups, on the quality of their relationships and material circumstances, on the environment and on prospects for future generations.
  • Make it sustainable. The ‘Big Society’ must be sustainable in environmental, social and economic terms. That means, for example, decarbonising services, planning for future generations and focusing on prevention.
  • Underpin it with a broader economy, a stronger democracy, and a strategic state. The economic, social and environmental challenges of the 21st century call for radical and systemic change to develop a broader economy, a bigger democracy and a strategic state. These ambitions are part of the ‘great transition’ to a new economy that frames nef’s work. The aim is to shift to a system where everyone is able to survive and thrive on equal terms, without over-stretching the earth’s resources. Only with a transition on this scale can the best elements of the ‘Big Society’ vision be realised and sustained over time.