Big Society needs Big Democracy

David Cameron's "Big Society" idea to empower local communities will amount to little without a democratic civic space.
Anthony Zacharzewski
19 July 2010

As David Cameron launches his "Big Society"  drive to empower the voluntary sector, OurKingdom publishes a series of reflections on the idea and its potential.

Jonathan Rosenberg > This post.

What's wrong with the following sentence?

"The Government held a Big Society reception at 10 Downing Street last week, with a list of invited dignitaries."

Of course, you spotted it. The Big Society is meant to be a flourishing of something beyond the traditional forms of government, a system which empowers the unempowered, and yet an early event is a meeting of the already-empowered over canapes in the nation's symbol of executive authority.

Now, it's early days, and I don't want to be snide about a single event. The Big Society Network is, I know, planning to go out and about around the country meeting people over the next few months. Those events will be vital if some of the energy and enthusiasm for community involvement in the Big Society is going to be sustained and channelled.

The Downing Street event did, however, play into one of my early worries about the Big Society approach: that it is seen by many as another Government programme, with central regulation, executive control and the State's resources at the heart of it.

Some of the signs are already there. Apart from canapes and tannic red wine, there are civil servants in a Department (of Civil Society), Ministers defending their positions on Newsnight, and policy papers from policy thinking institutions. Even more tellingly, a crowd of businesses and other institutions are jockeying for position around the Big Society, exhibiting what an economist would call "rent-seeking behaviours". In other words, trying to convince Ministers of their fealty in the hope that the Big Society approach will mean funding, or blessing for their way of doing things, or standards which are designed favourably for them.

This is a very elite way of doing things - it happens in Whitehall every day of the week on issues from healthcare to European widget regulations. If the Big Society team can't break out of that mode of operation, their agenda has already failed.

Instead, the Big Society and the network need to focus on creating a wider conversation in communities, which can move away from the Whitehall and Westminster world, and promote local solutions. They also need to create a deeper democratic conversation in those localities, to increase the effectiveness, legitimacy and coherence of local action.

There are several reasons why Big Democracy needs to go along with Big Society.

Pragmatically, wider democratic engagement brings more voices, wider experience and greater expertise, making for better decisions. More politically, Big Society is currently a Conservative party brand. If it going to be depoliticised, it needs to be clearly local, and non-political, bending and shaping itself to local conditions, outside party political control. Without that shift, Big Society projects will become like the NHS: every individual organisational failure laid at the door of ideology or Ministerial responsibility, and those responsible for failure will have little accountability.

The strongest reason for Big Democracy, though, is in the fundamental nature of politics. The Big Society's rhetorical focus on "community" elides away the fact that in any area there are numerous communities and interests, and they will be in competition with each other, either for or against a particular issue, or more likely in rival visions and proposals for action.

Political processes exist to arbitrate between these competing groups. This is true for hunter-gatherers, as it was for Louis XIV, as it is for the Mole Valley Residents' Association.

These arbitrations will always happen, but without a democratic, open process they will happen behind closed doors, and on the basis of friendships and unofficial relationships, rather than an open and transparent process. This very secrecy and bias is often complained of against local authorities - and they are state bodies bound by Freedom of Information laws, who undertake their decision making entirely in the open, even if the prior discussions are behind closed doors.

Some might say that community groups are inherently more open and participative than local authorities, and that can be true - for those who are in that community. To those in neighbouring communities, or in different groups in the same community, community groups can be much more closed and secret than legalistic agenda-publishing local authorities. Did you hear that their chairman plays golf with the local Academy sponsor? Did you see that they got the decision they wanted on the speed humps when we didn't? It's a recipe for paranoia.

The best way to resolve these tensions is through a light-touch democratic structure that overlays the different community groups and which they acknowledge as legitimate by participating in it. In some places, the best fit for this structure might be the local authority, but it is more likely to be an extension of traditional local democracy, building on representative politics with consultation, participation and discussion.

Without a democratic civic space, the public discourse will be one of competing community groups and interests, or (worse) a single community organisation run by an in-group who relentlessly suppress dissenting views.

The consequences would be fatal for the Big Society vision of mass participation and use of funding within the community. Those with time and money would either be put off by the cacophony, or would take their decisions on the basis of friendship circles, or similarity, or acquaintance. This pattern of decision making will provide excellent facilities where the resources are, and none where they are not.

So the question for those of us interested in democracy is - how do we build this democratic superstructure, or democratic plumbing, to bring different groups and individuals together around shared vision? Following on from the Big Society Open Night last week, Simon Burall from Involve and I have agreed to co-host a space here on, where people can discuss Big Democracy. To find it, go to We'll be posting articles there, and engaging in conversation through the forums. If there's interest, we will also work on arranging some offline discussions on the topic as well, linking in with the work of the Big Society Network if appropriate.

Anthony Zacharzewski runs the Democratic Society, a membership organisation promoting and supporting democratic participation and citizenship. Before setting up the Society, he spent ten years in Whitehall and four in local government. He also works with organisations inside and outside government, thinking about new models of governance and public service.

You can read more of OurKingdom's Big Society debate here.

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