David Cameron’s Big Society idea is ambitious but its implications are far from straightforward. David Lewis argues that the government’s attempt to reshape relationships between citizens, state, and market may rapidly become a political liability and burden voluntary groups and charities with responsibilities that they may be unable to deliver on.
In July 2010, David Cameron outlined the Big Society idea, with its three central components: volunteerism and philanthropy, localism and community empowerment, and public sector reform. He emphasised ‘a huge culture change’ that would include a ‘dramatic redistribution of power from elites’, so that people do not always turn government to provide solutions to their problems but instead ‘feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities’.
The idea draws on a rich mix of recent and no-so-recent traditions of policy thinking, from the Thatcherite privatisation agenda and Philip Blond’s Red Tory ‘progressive conservatism’ to the American political scientist Robert Putnam’s call for reversing the decline of civic life and building ‘social capital’ and the communitarian ideas of Amitai Etzioni. It even reaches back as far as eighteenth century thinker Edmund Burke’s ‘little platoons of family and civic association’ and Victorian philanthropy.
But why has the Big Society idea emerged now? Research from the University of Birmingham shows that the crisis of civic participation is a myth, since data shows relationships between state, civil society and citizens have remained fairly stable with healthy levels of volunteering, participation in social movements and a consistent growth in voluntary organisations. And Tory MP Francis Maude has stated that the Conservatives would have moved in this direction regardless of the financial crisis, indicating a deeper political agenda. Ideas for further rolling back the state therefore need to be viewed with suspicion. They raise serious questions of deteriorating local service quality and accountability, and the further growth of what Geoff Wood has called the ‘franchise state’.
Supporters point out that the Big Society idea can help cash-strapped government become more efficient in a time of austerity, while empowering people at the same time. A recent BBC Radio 4 programme highlighted how local government in Liverpool, a city with some of the largest cuts in the country, aims to keep local sports centres and libraries open by placing them in community trusts. Blond cites the Sandwell Community Care Trust that was taken out of local authority control in 1997, and now spends more on frontline care and less on administration.
For critics, the Big Society is a ‘smoke screen’ for an ideologically-driven decision to make drastic cuts and finally drive home a comprehensive privatisation agenda. For example, Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, recently predicted in an article for the Guardian that many ‘faith groups’, though willing to help, would often be unwilling to step in to fill the gaps in care left by cuts in state spending. He worries that the Big Society will further burden the most vulnerable and leave social care in the hands of ‘amateurs’ Changing procurement rules for local authorities is already lowering the bar for provider quality and accountability requirements. Voluntary sector organisations too are increasingly asking how they fit in to this Big Society, since many rely on public funding. Last October, Lord Wei, one of the government’s Big Society ‘gurus’ set off a row with the sector by attacking ‘big charity’ as unresponsive.
Cutting both state and third sector and simply expecting people to do things for free is not a viable strategy. For co-ops and mutuals to work properly, they will need long term financial and training support. Relying on volunteers is likely to accentuate inequalities. For citizens to run schools and other amenities, it will be middle classes with the time and resources to do so and the more vulnerable in society may lose out. An additional burden will fall on women’s unpaid employment to provide more ‘free labour’ in their local communities. Despite the promise of local spaces for citizen action, one of the government’s flagship ‘free schools’ set up by journalist Toby Young is set to occupy a prime west London site that will mean it will displace more than 20 longstanding voluntary groups working on issues such as homelessness, refugees and young offenders who already use the building.
In many areas it may still be too early to say how the Big Society idea will pan out. Increased employee-owned businesses, community development initiatives and reinvigorated mutualism may well be useful. But if the Big Society is a recipe for comprehensive state withdrawal, then there are likely to be very rough times ahead. The idea risks undermining the integrity of both state and civil society. The point of the voluntary sector, or civil society, is that it is a non-directed space in which people organise themselves in pursuit of both their own and wider public goals. The Big Society implies a set of wrong-headed values – most people want to use sports centres or libraries, not run them. When the national health service was set up in 1945, it was because the Big Society of its day – the diverse and patchy landscape of private and charitable healthcare providers – was judged to be hopelessly insufficient to meet the needs of the population. Passing over a set of responsibilities from citizens to state, to which the state can be held accountable, is at the heart of the contract between government and its citizens and is to be undermined at our peril. Cameron’s advisers Steve Hilton and Philip Blond will have to work even harder to try to rescue an idea that is turning into a rallying point for political opposition and public discontent.
David Lewis will be speaking at the LSE Public Lecture, Big Society and Social Policy in Britain: a panel discussion on Thursday 27January. Click here for more details.
Click here to respond to this article.
Please read our comments policy before posting.
To me the most important element of big society is ideological in nature and from what it seems is that Government is just shoving responsibility without agreeing to be held accountable, even for the state specific constitutionally determined functions. There is a whole body of volunteerism and civil society activism in Britan which as you mentioned has been healthy, beyond this the participation will become a burden. And it will be completely dis-connected with the third pillar of public sector reforms, which should actually focus on strengthening of state institutions and capacity building of volantry bodies. In any case, state has to take responsibility for people’s well being, the best it can do is to facilitate the atmosphere where participation at local levels is ecnouraged.
Let’s see how it unfolds further but enjoyed your analysis, as usual!
This is interesting, I am still waiting to hear how the Big Society will play out. The Big Society assumes there is a functioning third sector – and that the size of the state is too large and we’ve got to cut back, and keep cutting.
In many countries for example, civil society is weak and evidence of state delivery is non-existance. How would the Big Society idea work and play out in this context? I am all for encouraging volunteering and third sector oversight to state delivery, but they can’t be substitutes for the state’s core responsibilities?
I like the author’s wider point about the voluntary sector, or civil society being a non-directed space in which people organise themselves in pursuit of both their own and wider public goals. Perhaps the grand plan is to keep all these civil society activists busy with delivering services so they don’t actually question much? Perhaps the point is that these organisations should lose their advocacy edge?
How have I been missing all this while? David, that’s thought provoking indeed but look- Cameron talked ‘big’ to come to power, aggressively embarks on budget cuts in an unprecedented manner, public outcry and resentment worsens- what do you do? couch a misleading theme- ‘BIG SOCIETY’ to chicken out of core government responsibility and return to the ‘thatcharite’ agenda of aggressive privatisation. The citizens sector in Britain must act now because there are very serious social policy implications!!!
The trouble with the notion of the Big Society is that it assumes a developing third sector. Yet the evidence is that many charities are now considering redundancies. With the Tories intent on pursuing a strategy of encouraging volunteerism to address many of the countries ill it begs the question of how these volunteers will be managed.
There is also the case that the Third Sector will carry much of the burden of a number of Tory polices (eg delivery of the Work Programme). With charities now in a funding crisis and with a reduced workforce, it begs the question of how they hope to deliver the goods. Sensible thinking would suggest it can’t happen and if their approach falls at the first hurdle it will reduce the Big Society to the rubbish bin.