The Coalition needs to be honest about the Big Society

The Big Society must articulate its vision and define its expected outcomes, or face fading from the political landscape.
Andy Mycock
12 December 2010

David Cameron and others have expended considerable energy attempting to articulate a vision of the Big Society as a response to excessive statism under New Labour. But Children’s Minister Tim Loughton admitted recently that most people, including the “unfortunate ministers who have to articulate it”, still do not understand what the Big Society means. This is somewhat surprising. Although Cameron only introduced the term ‘Big Society’ in November 2009, many of its central themes have been evident in his thinking since becoming Conservative leader in 2005. Both before and after the credit crisis of 2007, Cameron attacked the size and role of the ‘monolithic state’ and significant public sector cuts have for some time been seen as part and parcel of his Big Society vision.

It would be unfair to have expected a new government to come into power with a ‘detailed blueprint’ to realise such radical thinking. But it is remarkable, considering its gestation period, how under-developed the Big Society vision is. The potential for Cameron’s team to develop Big Society thinking has been significant but it remains bespoke and partial. It is still uncertain as to how the Big Society will emerge, either in practical policy terms or as an overarching political vision.

But whilst the Coalition appears unable or unwilling to outline their vision of the Big Society in a clear and coherent manner, the concept is relatively easy to define. It has two key strands. The first involves the redefining and scaling back of social and economic citizenship rights accrued by British society, particularly in the past century. Though citizens will continue to pay roughly the same level of taxes, they will receive less in return from the state and will be expected to do more themselves. Second, provision of public services will increasingly be founded on a hybrid model whereby the state’s role diminishes and a combination of community and voluntary groups, charities, social enterprises, mutually-owned cooperatives and private businesses will take over.

For most people, the norms of citizenship will, in light of the spending cuts, be fundamentally and detrimentally redrawn – life will be more demanding and potentially less rewarding. Therefore, there is a need to tie Big Society ideas to public sector cuts, reform and the retreat of the state as the former is seen to make the latter somewhat more politically and socially palatable. But, as Anna Coote has noted in OurKingdom, the impact of the cuts on civil society and communities will make the Big Society difficult at best to realise. The key challenge for Big Society advocates is to convince citizens of the benefits of social activism without drawing attention to the enforced nature of the transferal of responsibility from the state to individuals and communities. The Big Society has been introduced as a fait accompli without any potential for deliberation or renegotiation. Moreover, the ‘year zero’ approach adopted fails to recognise that citizens are already volunteering in large numbers to provide local services and it also overlooks the time constraints of a citizenry who work some of the longest hours in Europe.

The lack of uniformity of expected outcomes of the Big Society raises the potential for significant inequalities of public resources between communities. The Big Society overlooks socio-economic inequalities and assumes that all citizens are able to commit equally. But it is clear that some have more time and resources and will be able to sustain higher levels of citizen-run public services and social capital. Such differences between communities could provoke tensions and lead to protectionism of community-based resources such as libraries, parks and leisure facilities. Emphasis on bespoke solutions could also encourage some ethnic and religious groups to seek the protection of their own communities thus furthering social segregation. Cameron and other Big Society proponents appear to invest considerable faith in the organic renewal of society without acknowledging the significant potential for atomisation of citizenship and isolation of significant numbers of citizens from both state and society.

It is questionable whether the enforced nature of the spending cuts will provide stable conditions for strategic planning for public service provision. Though voluntary and charity organisations (VCOs) and community groups might wish to take over some delivery of some services, spending cuts will mean uncertainty about revenue streams and a considerable amount of time spent raising funds rather than helping people. Such groups may be willing but might lack resources and possibly the expertise to respond quickly to the impact of cuts.

The private sector is however well set to exploit such opportunities and further expand their influence in the public sector. The support of government (and the Conservative party) economic policy by Capita and other outsourcing companies would not appear to be coincidental. But as Mike Kenny has noted on OurKingdom, contract-based provision of services by community groups and VCOs could radically alter the ethos of civil society. Hybrid delivery partnerships are likely to encourage some third sector actors to move away from their founding principles or operational aims in search of funding and this will encourage them to adopt more commercial practices to meet instrumental targets. The encouragement by the Coalition of new relationships between such groups and both the state and private sector is likely to complicate and compromise the values of altruism and community engagement, as market forces and government policy directives take precedence. Partnerships with some private providers whose commercial motivations or interests are perceived as somewhat contentious or instrumental could also have future implications for how the public perceive and are prepared to support VCOs.

Francis Maude recently noted that the Big Society will not be measured, as there will be no targets. Moreover, he said, it will not be uniform or tidy, and there will be gaps. This view conveniently sidesteps the need for the Coalition to coherently define the remit of Big Society and its tangible outcomes. Such ambiguity provides scant encouragement for citizens with limited time and many could quickly become weary of extra responsibility in a climate of cuts where the state will become increasingly remote. The Big Society is at present an open-ended aspiration that does not allow citizens to gauge progress or assess the extent to which they have succeeded, or not. Failure to provide such clarity could see some citizens become quickly dispirited and disincentivised. Unless a state of perpetual Big Society revolution is envisaged, there is a need to articulate an ‘end vision’ that clearly defines the rights and responsibilities of citizen and state.

Ian Birrell, a former speechwriter to Cameron, has argued that the lack of understanding of the Big Society and the absence of specific outcomes does not matter; it is more important that the public respond to Cameron’s vision. It is unclear, however, why the public should subscribe to a Big Society vision that is clearly a work-in-progress and is at present in danger of meaning everything and nothing. Its application in an ever-growing but disparate range of policy areas is likely to further confuse the public whilst making it ever more difficult to coherently define. The Big Society will quickly become associated with ad-hoc policy-making if the Coalition is unable to provide an honest and coherent framework of post-cuts citizenship and the minimum standards of public services citizens can expect after paying their taxes. Unless government is more honest about the Big Society, it will further provoke resentment amongst a cuts-weary public, before disappearing into the political ether.

Image originally published on Political Cream.

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