The Big Society - the passing of Cameron's dream

This was the government's revolutionary idea, its guiding light. Now, the government seems to have given up on it. What can we learn from the final audit of the 'big society'? The audit's primary author explains.

Caroline Slocock
27 January 2015

Flickr/The Prime Minister's Office

What happened to the Big Society? David Cameron, launching the initiative in 2010,  said 'Today is the start of a deep, serious reform agenda to take power away from politicians and give it to people.' Today, references to the Big Society have been largely erased from the Government’s website. The Prime Minister no longer talks about his big idea, which remains only in the form of specific initiatives: for example, Police and Crime Commissioners, Academy and Free schools and the National Citizen Service. 

But people are entitled to know whether the Big Society worked or not, particularly in the run up to an election. Greater transparency and accountability is a Government objective and rightly so. Whose Society?  The Final Big Society Audit published today, takes a long hard look.

This isn't just about this Government. The Big Society may be seen as David Cameron's personal project but it can be traced back to Tony Blair’s Third Way, which sought to unlock potential within society beyond the state and the markets. The Prime Minister who promised "to empower communities and citizens and ensure that power is more fairly distributed across the whole of our society" was Gordon Brown in the White Paper, Communities in Control: real people, real power.  Numerous Labour Government initiatives were re-launched by this Government under a different name.

What were the results? The conclusion of Civil Exchange's three year mapping against this Government’s public commitments is that, despite some genuinely positive initiatives, the Big Society failed to deliver against its original goals.    Attempts to create more social action, to empower communities and to open up public services, the core goals of the Big Society, have not worked, with some positive exceptions. The Big Society has not reached those who need it most. We are more divided than before.

That’s not the end of the story: the next Government, whoever forms it, is likely to pursue similar goals, even if the Big Society label sinks without trace. The reasons are clear: people expect more control, governments can only deliver more with less with the help of wider society and a flagging democracy can only be revitalised by sharing more power. Cuts in public spending make the case for a Big Society approach more, not less compelling. Indeed, the Labour Party is on the case with its One Nation project and “people powered services.”

But are politicians really able to deliver a “good Big Society”? It's not just that they struggle with giving up power once they enter office. They also keep repeating the same mistakes. So what are the lessons they need to learn?

First, a future Government must replace the market-based, public sector management model that has dominated the thinking of successive governments.  On past performance, individual choice and competition for contracts will not deliver the radical changes needed to ensure those who most need the support benefit equally from public services or to make public services more effective, at lower cost. It has delivered a ‘race to the bottom’ on contract price and the dominance of large private sector ‘quasi-monopoly’ providers who lack transparency and accountability. It has not closed the educational attainment gaps and health inequalities between rich and poor. A model of collaboration, rather than competition, would mobilise wider social forces to deliver outcomes, such as better health, which the state alone cannot deliver or purchase through a contract.

Second, the next Government must share and devolve more power. There have been positive examples of communities taking more control and redesigning services under the Big Society. But real power has not being transferred on any scale. Greater devolution creates an opportunity for a new kind of government at local level that works in a genuinely collaborative way.

Third, targeting is needed. The Government failed sufficiently to focus support where the need is greatest – the least affluent and advantaged communities, where cuts in both public services and the voluntary sector have fallen the hardest.

Fourth, collaboration with civil society—the voluntary sector, faith groups, trade unions, businesses—is needed. Sadly, the Big Society leaves the voluntary sector—a key source of support for disadvantaged groups and route to understanding their needs—not strengthened but weakened. But it remains a major resource that should be better supported  and a key partner.

Finally, we need to see a fundamental change in the role business plays – not just more corporate social responsibility programmes but pursuing a purpose that serves society.

All this can’t be achieved without a different kind of government. Unless we look back at what happened to the Big Society, that is very unlikely to happen.

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