Political Promise

The Big Society is happening; but what is happening?

In Features on April 21, 2011 at 8:00 am


Nick Denys, who works with Nat Wei, the government’s “Big Society tsar”, explains what the Big Society is, what it means for regular people and how you can get involved in your local community.

On Monday 14 February David Cameron had a choice; he could support the Big Society idea or let it disappear down the black-hole that has swallowed up many vacuous political concepts – such as Tony Blair’s third-way and John Major’s Victorian values. During the preceding weeks many had attempted to turn ‘Big Society’ into a term of abuse.  At a Cameron Direct event the Prime Minister took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and came out fighting. Instead of killing off Big Society he threw all his political capital behind it. “This is my absolute passion.  I think it is a different way of governing, a different way of going about trying to change our country for the better, and it’s going to get every bit of my passion and attention over the five years of this government.”

Now that we know Big Society is going to happen, can anyone tell me what the term really means?

Ever since its inception one of the major criticisms of Big Society is that the concept has not been properly defined. In February of this year a YouGov poll found that 72% did not understand the policy well or did not understand it at all. Oddly though the same poll found that the principle of the Big Society was broadly approved of, with 49% of people saying it is a good idea.

Depending on what side of the political spectrum you are from Big Society is either:

  • repackaged liberalism,
  • community empowerment,
  • or a fluffy brand masking brutal cuts.

In November 2010 the Oxford Dictionary of English attempted a definition. Admirably they used skill and cunning, the likes of which can only be found in the best spin-doctors, to define Big Society in a way that everyone could agree with: “Significant responsibility for running society’s services devolved to local communities and volunteers.”

One of the problems with coming up with a definition that everyone agrees with is that it is bound to be so broad that it is meaningless. Are there any better definitions out there?

The Cabinet Office – the department in Whitehall that has the overall responsibility for co-ordinating the Big Society approach – has this definition on it’s website. “The Big Society is about helping people to come together to improve their own lives. It’s about putting more power in people’s hands – a massive transfer of power from Whitehall to local communities.”

This is still quiet broad but Frances Maude, Cabinet Office Minister, has expanded on this definition by highlighting three actions the Government will take to support Big Society.

  • Devolve power to citizens and communities
  • Reform public services
  • Support social action

For Maude, these actions will be achieved by challenging the monopoly public sector service providers have, encouraging a wide group of organisations to take advantage of opportunities created and give those who receive services greater choice.

So is Big Society about shrinking the State; finishing off the job Mrs Thatcher started in the 1980s?

No. What is clear when you closely follow the debate is that Government has a crucial role in making Big Society take shape, but the State needs to adopt a new mindset, one that moves away from the central command and control attitude that existed under New Labour. The state’s job is to create structures that make it easy for individuals and communities to improve their locality. Work needs to be done on how to encourage entrepreneurial instincts in both Whitehall and town halls. Changing the mentality of those who operate within or close to government structures may be one of the toughest tasks in creating an environment where self-determination can flourish. When Cameron talked about giving up power he was, after all, talking about their power.

But what about the cuts? Big Society is mainly a cover for the Government’s reduction in spending isn’t it?

Many opponents of the Coalition have conflated the reduction in public spending with ‘Big Society’.DavidCameron has said that he wishes the Government didn’t need to have to deal with over £1000billion worth of debt, but that he believes it is irresponsible to pretend that this is not the environment that exists. The Big Society is a stand-alone concept that is being implemented at a time when cuts to spending are happening.

So far we are still talking about definitions and attitudes. Where are the Big Society actions?

The Big Society Bank will start operating in the summer. The first Free Schools will open in September. The Localism Bill, which allows ‘Community Right to Buy’ and ‘Community Right to Challenge’, is making its way through Parliament. The Giving Green Paper, which will create a more visible approach to philanthropy, will be turned into a Bill. The Government will soon publish the Open Public Services White paper – which will allow charities, small business, and mutuals made up of civil servants to bid to provide Government services.

This is all Government action. Where is the people action?

I have a running joke with my wife where I point at actions we see in our everyday life and say “that’s Big Society”. This can be something as simple as a person picking-up litter off the street, or telling children to turn their music down on the bus. The serious sentiment behind the joke is that there are already a lot of people whose small actions are the embodiment of the Big Society idea. Julian Dobson from the group Our Society, when reporting a ‘Big Society Debate’ held by Doncaster Central Development said that: “While you’ll find hosts of volunteers who are building community you’ll find few who’d describe themselves as Big Society enthusiasts.” The only thing that is of importance is that these good people are doing good things to improve their community. Ultimately, in Big Society it is action – the doing – that matters. The definition of ‘Big Society’ is mainly of importance to those who influence the structure within which the doers operate. However, those at the centre should always question if what they are doing helps advance the Big Society agenda, and listen to the doers.

If people have always acted in this way why is it necessary to encourage more to do so?

According to supporters of Big Society, under New Labour the state has grown and expanded and interfered to such an extent that people feel that they no longer can or should be in control of their own lives.  It cannot be morally right that the only way to resolve a dilemma is to involve officialdom, but this is also not an economically viable proposition. Around the world there is a realisation that the Big State Model – the strong centralised state – is not a sustainable one for our future.

If it is not important how people define themselves and their actions why was it necessary to create the term?

Over time it has become obvious to me that the Big Society is a policy strategy, not a political one. If a government wants to be bold and transform society, which this one undoubtedly does, it needs a vision of what it wants to achieve. For there to be a joined-up approach to governing this vision needs to be communicated to decision makers such as departmental ministers and senior Civil Servants. When formulating policy these people should be asking themselves appropriate questions:

  • Are we devolving power?
  • Will people be free to make the best choices?
  • How transparent are we?
  • Are there others, apart from government agencies, who can best achieve the desired outcome?

And ultimately:

  •  Does it fit into the government’s Big Society agenda?

Will it work?

As a natural born optimist and supporter of Big Society you won’t be surprised to learn that I say yes. But in reality we need to wait a bit longer before we can truly assess the agenda’s impact.

Nick Denys regularly blogs for the Conservative website www.Platform10.org and can be followed on twitter @betapolitics. 

  1. […] The Big Society is happening; but what is happening? « Political …Description : In November 2010 the Oxford Dictionary of English attempted a definition. Admirably they used skill and cunning, the likes of which can only be found in the best spin-doctors, to define Big Society in a way that everyone could agree with: “ Significant responsibility for running society’s … This is still quiet broad but Frances Maude, Cabinet Office Minister, has expanded on this definition by highlighting three actions the Government will take to support Big Society. …http://politicalpromise.co.uk/ .. […]

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