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Newsletters > May 2011 > Building the Big Society - Reflections on creating Civil Society Empowerment
There has been a lot of discussion lately in the UK about “the Big Society” – the Government’s flagship idea for changing the nature of civic society and very much personally identified with Prime Minister David Cameron. “More Society, Less State” is the slogan that’s often used, but what does it actually mean? Like many people, I’m a bit confused. Is it all about reducing the cost of public services? Can it really help to foster a sense of ownership within communities? Is it likely to make up the “democratic deficit” or is it another nail in the coffin for local democracy? These are all questions of interest to the PEOPLE programme, particularly in relation to the theme of “Civil Society Empowerment”, so I recently attended a conference in London called Social Reform in the UK: Building the ‘Big Society’ to try to find some of the answers to these questions

I soon learnt that I wasn’t alone in seeking answers! The conference was a complete sell-out with many of the delegates grappling with the basic concepts. Luckily some of the architects of the Big Society were on hand. Lord Nat Wei, the Government’s advisor on the Big Society, explained that he saw it giving people more control over their own lives and allowing communities the powers to solve problems closer to where they live, instead of relying on faceless and distant bodies. His vision is an iterative approach, rather like the way the internet has developed or the growth of social media rather than a traditional government initiative. The Government will provide the framework and incentives for a participative society, but how these are used and grown will depend on how local communities choose to use them.


Paul Twivy, the Chief Executive of the Big Society Network explained concepts such as “Double Devolution” – devolving power to local government and then further devolving it to citizens and local groups. The Network seeks to harness the one million or so community groups in the UK and an estimated 238,000 social entrepreneurs, along with countless charities and voluntary organisations, many of which are small and local.

Guiding principles are:

  • Empowering individuals and communities: Decentralising and redistributing power not just from Whitehall to local government, but also directly to communities, neighbourhoods and individuals
  • Encouraging social responsibility: Encouraging organisations and individuals to get involved in social action, whether small neighbourly activities like hosting a Big Lunch to large collective actions like saving the local post office
  • Creating an enabling and accountable state: Transforming government action from top-down micromanagement and one-size-fits-all solutions to a flexible approach defined by transparency, payment by results, and support for social enterprise and cooperatives

A key driver is the feeling, borne out by research that suggests people feel ever more isolated and disenfranchised. According to the most recent census data, 97% feel that communities are becoming more fragmented. Only 4 out of 10 believe that they can influence local decisions. Only 1 in 33 attends public meetings. There is anger at the recent behaviour of bankers and politicians but people feel relatively powerless to change them.


Flagship policies include the Big Society Bank, to will help finance social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups; the training of 5,000 new community organisers; and the creation of a National Citizen Service programme. Legislative reforms include the Localism Bill, which will reform the planning system to empower neighbourhoods, and propose a string of measures to decentralise power and control to the local level.


The conference also heard from representatives of groups which are expected to play an important role in shaping the Big Society. Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Cooperatives UK talked about the potential to use employer-owned co-operatives to take over and deliver services. He pointed out some examples of successes in using this model, with a correlation between the motivation to deliver of a good service through employee engagement but the evidence from the pathfinder pilots suggests it is not at all the easy option, requiring resource and effort to get it right.


Sir Stuart Etherington from the National Council of Voluntary Organisations also cautioned that a lot remains to be done in building a framework so that Civil Society players can help deliver the Big Society. Although there is a strong tradition of volunteering and charitable giving, the notion of philanthropy, second nature to successful individuals and corporations in the USA, who reinvest in their communities and educational institutions, needs to be fostered on this side of the Atlantic. A number of tensions need to be resolved: between delivering local services while achieving efficiencies of scale; determining the balance between risk and regulation; encouraging equity while maintaining diversity.


In summary, the impression given by speakers and participants at the conference is that there are some great ideas floating around aligned with the Big Society, but there are perhaps even more questions and problems relating to implementation. This is borne out by IPSOS/MORI polling which shows that 54% of people think that the Big Society is a good idea in principle but won’t work in practice, and as many as 57% also think it’s just an excuse for the government to save money by cutting back on public services.


One of the PEOPLE programme sub-projects, PEPA (People Participating) seeks to  improve local and regional governance by strengthening the role and participation of Civil Society Organisations in setting the social and cultural local agenda and encouraging involvement in local decision making processes. Hampshire Economic Partnership (HEP) is launching a consultation with community groups to ascertain the level of participation and consultation they feel in decision making with public authorities and examine the social and cultural results of this. A recent international study visit organized by HEP brought participants from Spain and Italy to the UK and highlighted issues facing community organisations. Simon Goodenough, Director of the Ventnor Botanic Gardens spoke eloquently about the challenges the garden on the Isle of Wight faces in harnessing the goodwill and passion of a network of volunteers at the same time as they face cuts in support from the local authority.


There have been further setbacks facing the Big Society initiative. Liverpool City Council has written to the prime minister withdrawing its involvement from his "big society" plans, saying government cuts had threatened the future of many local volunteer groups. The city was one of four pilot areas for the scheme, aimed at giving community groups and volunteers more control over their local services. Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, who is retiring from the Community Service Volunteers (CSV) after 36 years, recently said there was no "strategic plan". She told the Times "massive" council cuts would make it much harder for people to do more in their communities. "There are a lot of very worthwhile programmes - for example volunteers working in child protection as promoted by the minister for children - which are now under threat of closure." She feels "it's about one hand not appreciating what the other hand's doing and not getting the decisions made in a timely fashion." Lord Wei himself has scaled back his time on developing the Big Society as he needs to spend more time earning a living and “having a life”. If even he has trouble making this voluntary commitment, what hope for the ordinary citizen, already probably busy balancing home and work pressures?


Some say these are all signs that the Big Society Initiative is dying before it’s really got off the ground. In truth, it’s probably too early to say. It is clear that there will be big changes to society in the coming years. Cuts to public services are a reality and have started to bite. Changes to the UK’s planning system and laws devolving power to the local level are currently being debated in Parliament. Agreement has just been reached with the UK’s main banks to provide a £200 million fund (about 237 million euro) for the Big Society Bank. Whichever way the initiative develops, there will be long-lasting effects on Civil Society for years to come.