August/September analysis: The meaning of the Big Society

Written by Peter Davy
August/September

For David Cameron, it’s a “great passion”, and for Labour, it’s a “big con”. However, for most, the Big Society has just been a bit vague.

Like Blair’s “third way” it is policy theme used to account for an array of seemingly unrelated initiatives, from a national voluntary service for young people to increasing access to government information. And like the third way, there is little agreement on what it actually means. As Stephen Bubb puts it: “It’s like a long piece of string on which the Government is hanging all sorts of balloons.”

That has, of course, led to some scepticism not just among opposition politicians, but in the sector as well. As the Community Sector Coalition warned soon after the Government took power, the lack of clarity led many to fear the idea is simply code for cuts. The Conservatives must explain their idea quickly before it was destroyed by cynicism, warned the coalition’s director Matthew Scott.

Three months on, though, he admits it has moved on. “It is getting a little clearer,” he says. Certainly the thinking is easy enough to follow. Look to Cameron’s speech in Liverpool (re)launching the Big Society in July and the argument is readily apparent: Where people and communities have become used to looking to the state to solve their problems, the responses in future are to come from within communities themselves. As Cameron put it: “You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society.”

And the three streams of government activity supporting it are also now well defined, says civil society minister Nick Hurd: transferring power to people; increasing access to information for citizens; and supporting the development of communities’ capacity to respond to the new opportunities. Added to that, there is increasing detail on some of the individual initiatives, such as the Big Society Bank and Deregulation Taskforce. “The rhetoric and direction of travel is clear,” says Hurd.

What isn’t clear, however, is exactly what impact all this will have on charities. NCVO keeps a continually updated section on its website looking at the policy and trying to make sense of it for its members, and although it’s taking shape, there are still some doubt as to what it will look like, says its head of policy Belinda Pratten. “We still need to see how some of the ideas are translated into practice.”

Partly, that’s probably not surprising. For a start, it’s still early days; more, for instance will be known once the Localism Bill is published in the Autumn, and as the four “vanguard communities” announced at the Prime Minister’s speech as training grounds for decentralisation establish a track record.

Partly also it’s perhaps inherent in the policy itself. As Jay Kennedy, head of policy at the Directory of Social Change, says, the whole point is that it won’t be defined from the top: “The programme is about empowering people and local communities, so in a way it is up to us,” he says. “I think it is intentionally vague. The government is saying it’s not going to provide a roadmap.”

Trouble ahead
There are, however, at least two areas where it is already obvious the third sector will be impacted. The first is volunteering, which is central to the vision’s delivery. Over time, the Government is relying on more people being prepared to give their time to set up and run the services their community wants.

The second is a greater role in public service delivery, with the government saying it is committed to making it easier for voluntary sector groups, social enterprises and others to compete for contracts. This, says Bubb, is the principle opportunity for charities and perhaps the best answer the Government has to those worried about the squeeze in public spending. It is, he says, potentially the biggest balloon of them all: “A really radical move that will take services away from the state and give them to third sector organisations.”

As a policy, it has been thought through, is supported by a social and economic case and, of course, has been on Acevo’s agenda for a decade. “Now, it’s going to happen,” says Bubb.

In fact, though, both drives still face serious obstacles. Take volunteering first. The Government has announced various initiatives to help: The National Citizen
Service, an annual Big Society Day celebrating the work of community groups, and training for 5,000 community organisers. So far, however, it’s difficult to see how these will result in the step change in volunteering apparently envisaged, particularly since other initiatives, such as V’s schools programme, are victims of cuts. After all, the last government spent millions trying to promote volunteering, and the figures didn’t budge. As Professor John Mohan at the Third Sector Research Centre puts it: “There is considerable underlying stability in volunteering rates.”

Added to that, the centre’s analysis of Citizenship Survey figures shows those areas with the greatest need of help often have the fewest volunteers: 42 per
cent of those in the most prosperous tenth of residential neighbourhoods are among the core group (comprising about a third of the population) who account for 87 per cent of voluntary action. In the least prosperous areas it is 25 per cent. It will take a considerable effort to change this, says Mohan.

The Government’s answer, however, seems to be that volunteers aren’t expected to create the Big Society; the Big Society will create the volunteers. As Hurd explains, it is all about long term culture change. Increased volunteering will come not because of government programmes but “because we have changed the environment in terms of what is seen as normal and expected.” Time will tell if he is right.

On service delivery, though, patience is likely to be more limited. The problem is, of course, that the cuts in public spending will inevitably affect many charities. With 40 per cent of the sector’s income coming from the Government, it’s difficult to see how this could be otherwise. Indeed it’s already happening. At the RNID, for instance, Jackie Ballard says the charity is already seeing a squeeze on contract prices, and doesn’t expect any immediate improvement.

“We are prepared to weather a storm in terms of the funding we get from statutory sources,” she says. It’s perhaps unfortunate for the government that the strains are already becoming apparent before any great increase in opportunities for the sector can offset them, but in any case there are going to be charities that lose out long-term, and even close because of the cuts. And, in fact, there is no guarantee the outcome for the sector overall will be positive.

Small change
For one thing, smaller groups could struggle to win contracts, argues Ed Cox, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research North. Its report in June, Growing the Big Society, warned that the “funding cliff-edge” in 2011 risked seeing government look to bigger contracts in the drive to cut costs.

For community groups to get much more involved in service delivery, says
Cox, they need government support – that means more funding for community
organisers or more money for the Big Society Bank. “If the Government was
serious about the Big Society there are lots of things they could do that wouldn't
necessarily cost much but would require some more funding than is currently being suggested,” says Cox.

At London Voluntary Service Council, chief executive Peter Lewis is similarly
frustrated. In July, he saw plans for the £4 million Mayor’s Incubator Fund, which was to be run by the London Development Agency, scrapped. Intended to help charities build bidding capacity, put together consortia and manage cash flow, it was exactly the type of thing needed so voluntary groups could play a bigger role.

“It was the only instance I know of where a public sector body was actually taking a strategic approach to reconciling the rhetoric of wanting more community organisations to deliver services with the reality of bigger contract sizes brought on by the drive for efficiency,” he says.


“We don't understand now how that gap is going to be filled.” That is particularly
an issue when you consider that it’s not just charities that will be competing for contracts; the private sector will be bidding too. In July, for instance, outsourcing giant Capita said it expected to benefit from government spending cuts as public
sector clients looked to contract work out. The announcement came as it reported pre-tax profits up 15 per cent for the first half of the year to £163m and new business wins of £523m, which perhaps puts the £400m in the Big Society Bank into perspective.

“The private sector is waiting for this opportunity to come along and they already
have the capacity,” points out Kennedy. Not many charities will be able to scale up and invest in internal infrastructure to allow them to compete with the big boys, he reckons. The majority of the voluntary sector will be left out of the loop.”

Well wishers
Of course, on the bright side, charities have good support in government, and MPs expect charities to do well. Nfp Synergy’s survey published in August
found widespread support among the coalition parties for the idea that the
provision of frontline services by charities would help cut costs: 82 per cent of Tories and 55 per of Lib Dems agreed. On a wider question of the role of charities and social enterprises, nearly 90 per cent of coalition MPs thought they would be more important to this government than the last, and even among Labour MPs, more agreed to that than differed.

However, MPs aren’t responsible for the majority of contract awards and, indeed,
another strand of the Big Society agenda – the drive towards localism – is designed to limit their influence still further. And that leads to what some say is the final barrier: the lack of an evidence base to support the case for charities as preferred deliverers of public services.

Bubb and others argue it’s clear the sector can deliver more cost effective and responsive public services, but others are less convinced. “I don't think it is really backed up by the hard evidence,” says Martin Brookes, chief executive of
New Philanthropy Capital. And it’s not just him, he points out: the Public Administration Select Committee report two years ago also said it couldn't find any compelling evidence for the value-added of the sector.

That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, Brookes stresses, but charities need to put more effort into demonstrating it if they are going to convince not just central
government, but local authorities and others that they offer a better deal than the
public or private sectors. “The question is will they face up to the almost aggressive scrutiny that public spending is coming under now,” says Brookes.

In fact, Brookes reckons many could, and rather than fret that multi-year studies
and randomised control trials to provide the appropriate evidence are out of their
reach, groups need to ask what evidence can they collect straightforwardly and
whether it’s compelling to make the case. Often, he says, it is. “As the public spending cuts kick, it’s tempting to be fatalistic, but it is still possible to make
strong cases for charities not just to resist cuts but also to be scaled up.”

And ultimately, that is why this is the problem with the Big Society that charities
need to focus on: because, whatever the other difficulties, this is the one they can do something about, and it’s the one they can start addressing right now.

Peter Davy is a freelance journalist



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