Big Society is dead, let community collectivism flourish

Two words that we hear less and less, especially by government ministers, are ‘Big Society’. In the 2010 general election, the ‘Big Society’ was one of the prime minister’s major policy initiatives and one of the ways by which society was going to be changed for the better.

Unfortunately and strangely, ‘Big Society’ was never properly defined, supported or embedded, and the necessary policy framework to underpin it was never introduced. The phrase became conflated with the biggest ever reduction in public expenditure on social programmes, communities, and the voluntary and community sector. Consequently, many commentators and practitioners interpreted ‘Big Society’ as a cynical cover or excuse for cutting public spending and creating a smaller state.

Many voluntary and community sector, charities, social enterprises and communities were seduced into expecting the ‘Big Society’ to provide them with new additional revenues; opportunities to deliver public services whether contracted to them by the public sector or financed in other ways; and cheap capital. They were quickly disappointed – and that disappointment has over time turned to anger and then cynicism.

They were going to be able to ‘challenge’ public sector bodies to enable them to take over the running of public services and the ownership of public (even privately owned) assets. And indeed, these rights of challenge have been enshrined in legislation – but not necessarily on the terms that the voluntary and community sector expected or could work with.

It is now apparent that public sector organisations, especially government, have generally ‘assumed’ in a ‘big state’ way, that communities and community organisations will take over public services and public assets on terms determined by the public sector for its convenience. However, this patronising stance has taken no account of the capacity or the will of these bodies to take on such responsibilities, or of their sustainability.

At the same time, the government has rightly played up the virtues and benefits of volunteering but alas, has then seemed to expect volunteers to take and run services that previously were run and funded by the public sector. Now it is true that many voluntary organisations benefit from the contribution of volunteers but many employ staff too. The UK has a long and worthy history of volunteering but there is a real danger that the government, by its behaviour and naïve assumptions, has irreparably harmed this cause. One can only hope that this is not the case.

The government has missed a huge opportunity with the ‘Big Society’ but it was never going to be a truly feasible policy given the scale of cuts to public services, to the charitable and community sectors, and to welfare benefits. And if the ideological drive of government was anti-collectivism, perhaps inevitably, there was always little prospect of the ‘Big Society’ flourishing because by definition society is itself a collective concept.

However, progressives and those committed to voluntary community action and strong communities have, I think, too easily dismissed the ‘Big Society’ and worse, those positive practices and concepts with which it should have been more directly associated. We need to reclaim the principles and the reality of community based action; community led services and mutualism – as well as viable alternatives to state or business sector monopolies. Perhaps we need to find a new set of words to describe such an approach.

Already, some local authorities and others are seeking to build and support communities to enhance their own strength. Others are seeking to develop new compacts and alliances with the voluntary and community sector. Groups in this and the wider social sector are delivering or looking to deliver services for the public in new ways and to establish a new set of relations between themselves and their beneficiaries.

Ideally, in more areas of the country it would be fantastic if local authorities were to join forces with the wider public sector, community activists and the local VCS to:

  • introduce collaboration rather than competition-based opportunities for public service and asset transfers with adequate funding
  • design the means of leveraging capital investment into communities based on the assets of the public, private and community sectors and the human capital of the neighbourhood itself
  • establish affordable social investment funds
  • promote volunteering – working with local employers from all sectors and the trade unions
  • introduce the living wage and other anti-poverty measures
  • develop strategies for public service delivery based on social value and not simply price – again with cross sector collaboration
  • introduce community governance mechanisms with devolved funding to enable communities that want to take greater self-control to do so
  • promote the concept of responsible capitalism through procurement and partnership working with local companies

‘Big Society’ may be discredited but society and progressive community based policies and practices should not and must not be. The future social, economic and environmental health of the nation is dependent on mutualism, collective respect and action, and the essence of active citizenship. This requires a new style of leadership, and a facilitative and re-distributive role for a possibly smaller but still very active and focused state at national and local level. Community collectivism alongside state collectivism should be enabled to flourish.


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