Evaluating the Big Society initiative and what it means

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What is the 'Big Society'?

The Big Society is the government's prized policy in addressing these issues and in Cameron's own words it is 'a drive to empower communities' as well as his 'great passion' [1] . (Taken from speech by the David Cameron on the, 19 July 2010,)

The three strands of the big society agenda are:

Public service reform

The reform agenda is designed to empower communities to come together to address local issues

Bring about lasting culture change to support the work of neighbourhood groups, charities and social enterprises. [2] (Big Society; 2009)

The driving force of the 'Big Society' initiative

The driving force and publication of the 'Big Society' initiative by the Tories was released by the parties green paper 'Control Shift: Returning Power to Local Communities' which was released on the 17th February 2009. Interestingly the publication was due to be released in the second week of October 2008, but due to the global financial collapse this was pushed back.

In the publication they pointed out that 'Labour's top-down bureaucracy has crowded out social action and eroded social responsibility. This has weakened society and undermined communities' [3] .

What are the aims of the Big Society?

The localism green paper set the wheels rolling on the publication of the 'Big Society, Not Big Government' paper and the much publicised 'Big Society' speech by David Cameron.

When the coalition government was formed the 'Big Society' agenda evolved into 5 stated priorities as the Liberal Democrats were opposed to the Conservatives viewpoint to hand power for community drive towards local people and they believed that local councils should be at the forefront of the big society initiative.

Evaluation of the 'Big Society'

How will the Government set out achieving their aims? - Key policies

The key policies in driving forward the 'Big Society' initiative fall into the three strands of the big society agenda which has been taken from the 'Big Society, Not Big Government' publication by the Conservative party:

strengthen and support social enterprises to help deliver public service reforms: [4] (Big Society; 2009)

The approach by the Government to meet these objectives will be:

• "Creating an independent Big Society Bank, funded from unclaimed bank assets, which will leverage private sector investment to provide hundreds of millions of pounds of new finance for neighbourhood groups, charities, social enterprises and other non-governmental bodies." (Big Society; 2009)

• "One of the purposes of the Big Society Bank will be to provide funds to intermediary bodies with a track record of supporting and growing social enterprises." (Big Society; 2009)

'These intermediary bodies will use these funds to support the next generation of social entrepreneurs, and help more social enterprises to win government contracts and receive revenues from our payment-by-results public service frameworks.' [5] (Big Society; 2009)

The Labour government had said its proposed social investment bank, a similar proposal to the Big Society Bank, would have been third on the list of recipients of dormant bank account money, after youth and financial inclusion services.

A spokesman for the Office for Civil Society said that the Co-operative Bank, which is administering the process of reclaiming money from dormant accounts, had estimated that the bank is likely to have obtained only £60m to £100m of unclaimed assets by April.

He said this was because of practical difficulties such as tracking down owners of potentially dormant accounts, which raises questions over the potential that the 'big society bank' would realistically be able to fund to drive for social enterprise and whether or not the amount raised would be enough to fund this drive.

The second agenda which was

The stimulation needed for the creation and development of neighbourhood groups in every area:

The Governments approach would be to:

• Establish National Centres for Community Organising.

'We will fund the training of 5,000 independent community organisers over the lifetime of the next Parliament. This national army of community organisers will have the skills needed to raise funds to pay for their own salaries help communities to establish and operate neighbourhood groups, and help neighbourhood groups to tackle difficult social challenges. In the US, the community organising endowment established by Saul Alinsky has trained generations of community organisers, including President Obama.' [6] (Big Society; 2009)

This highlights community organiser and community organising, which is all about bringing people together and empowering them to achieve change in their own lives through political activism. It seeks to build relationships with those who hold the power and by, direct civil action if the initial approaches fail.

The danger now is that in taking government money and plugging into the Big Society agenda, much of this work could be compromised. The growing concerns about internal democracy may also be causing some to question the work of community organising. Whatever the truth, it must be hoped that the astute leadership of existing community organisations are aware of the dangers and do not risk destroying what has so far been a positive experiment in activism.

The government also plan on

• Providing neighbourhood grants for the UK's poorest areas.

'This micro-funding will go to charities and social enterprises to work with new and existing neighbourhood groups in the most deprived and broken communities.' [7] (Big Society; 2009)

'This will provide a new incentive for people to come together to form neighbourhood groups in the poorest areas, as well as an incentive for charities and social enterprises to support the creation of new neighbourhood groups.' [8] (Big Society; 2009)

While it could open the doors for social enterprises to play a bigger role in our society, the latest cuts to local councils will result in some falling at the first hurdle.  For social enterprises it is a double edged sword.  A time of opportunity to deliver new services and own community assets, but cuts over the next two years will make it difficult for some social enterprises to survive.

  This will allow local authorities to take a strategic approach to spending, which should make social enterprise an attractive option to them.  Social enterprises are often mistaken for being the nice but expensive option, yet they often save local authorities and taxpayers money in the long-run.  The social enterprise community must not miss this opportunity to reach out to commissioners and procurement teams to let them know they exist, and explain what they can deliver.

The third and final agenda on relating to the Big Society initiative by the government is to

iii) Encourage mass engagement in neighbourhood groups and social action projects by

'First, we will help to catalyse social action by making better use of existing civic institutions. For example, we will devolve more powers to town halls, give new functions to post offices, protect local pubs and take action to safeguard local shops.' [9] (Big Society; 2009)

'This paper for the first time explains how we will apply this approach to the civil service, one of Britain's largest civic institutions. By making use of these institutions, we can help to embed a powerful new social norm on social action and community activism.' [10] (Big Society; 2009)

'In addition, we will also create new institutions that can encourage social action and mass engagement in community projects. For example, a Conservative government will create a National Citizens' Service to bring together sixteen year olds from across the country in a two-month programme where they can learn what it means to be socially responsible, to serve their community, and to get on and get along with people from different backgrounds. Building on this approach, we will create a 'Big Society Day' which will become a permanent institution dedicated to social action' [11] (Big Society; 2009)

The approach to this by the Government will be;

• Transforming the civil service into a 'civic service' by making regular community service a key element in staff appraisals.

'This will help to bring about a culture change throughout the civil service.' [12] (Big Society; 2009)

If Employee Supported Volunteering is to expand due to its links to the Big Society the Government needs to dispel the image that it is trying to get free resources because they have not balanced their books. The Big Society presents some huge opportunities for involving people in volunteering appropriately and effectively, but it is a fine line we have to walk here as with forever increasing workloads, along with the requirement for some form of voluntary working, would it be placing to great a strain on employees. Should it not be incentivised so that it is done from the viewpoint of giving as opposed to meeting appraisal targets?

• Launching an annual national 'Big Society Day' to celebrate the work of neighbourhood groups and encourage more people to take part in social action projects.

'These six new policies represent a radical Conservative agenda to build the Big Society, where more power and control is decentralised to neighbourhoods and where people are empowered to come together to address social problems.' [13] (Big Society; 2009)

Is the idea of an annual Big Society Day able to generate the publicity that the Community and Voluntary sector need, or would it be a formal governmental award that no one has any real interest in?

The 'Big Society' ideology in its purest sense is set about with the best of intensions but to believe it will address a huge proportion of the social and housing problems that society faces is a bit far fetched even for the most optimistic individual.

What are the factors that can help make the implementation a success or failure?

As the 'Big Society' initiative itself is something that needs to be driven by governmental policy, the recently released localism bill draft would go a long way to the success and/or failure of the 'Big Society' agenda. The approach itself has been stated as a bottom up approach to policy implementation and with a policy decision as this, such approaches typically start with "... an analysis of the multitude of actors who interact at the operational (local) level on a particular problem or issue ... [and] ... the strategies pursued by various actors in pursuit of their objectives." (Sabatier: 1986).

However the margin for success and/or failure can be determined by a variety of factors and the understanding that this is a policy that will be driven forward by central government, so it already defeats the whole idea that those at the 'bottom' are the driving force for the policy, the actual situation is that those at the 'bottom' are the ones who have been assigned the task of implementing and making it a success, whilst having to answer to central government for any failures on delivering on the 'Big Society' initiative.

Opportunities and Challenges for the Community and Voluntary Sector


The 'Big Society' Bank would go a long way in supporting theses sectors along with £470 million of funding from the coalition government in the voluntary and community sector over the next four years, which had been outlined in the comprehensive spending review.

According to the review the figure of £470 million includes a short-term £100 million transition fund to help non-profit organisations adapt to the economic conditions.

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office said the fund will translate to £10 million in 2010-11 and £90 million in 2011-12. It will be administered by the Office for Civil Society and an as-yet-unannounced third sector partner.

The third sector has seen a period of expansion over the last decade or so, with 55,000 new charities created since 2000. The voluntary sector has seen its income increase by £10 billion over the same period - with earned income and public service delivery driving much of this growth which is evidenced by the chart below and is a huge positive for the sector along governmental support.


The Government's de-regulation task force will be created to identify the main burdens for VCOs and provide recommendations on how to reduce the burdens faced by regulation.

The aim of the Task Force is to 'cut red tape', so it will be looking at the full range of burdens that fall on civil society organisations. A report is to be submitted to Ministers by early 2011, identifying practical proposals for specific changes in regulation and administration that will make it easier to set up and manage a charity, voluntary organisation or social enterprise.

The subjects that could be included are many, from health and safety, Gift Aid, VAT, the vetting and barring regime, to the responsibilities of trustees, employment law, the contractual arrangements when providing public services, data protection and licensing requirements.

Changing attitude and culture

This builds on a rich and cherished tradition of co-operation, self help, mutual aid, community development and local organising that dates back to the early days of the industrial revolution and has flourished in countless ways and places ever since. It would be hard to find anyone to argue with conviction or support that we needed less of any of these things.

Effective participation requires willingness on the part of community members, government officers and elected representatives. They need to believe that there is value to be gained by engaging with each other. This is particularly important on the community side, where participation is voluntary and unpaid. Most people are only prepared to give up time that could be spent with friends and family or earning a wage, if they believe that their participation will make a difference.

For participation to make a difference, councillors and government officers have to be prepared to engage, and be open to changing their plans. The panel heard numerous stories of officers and councillors who had this approach. Their involvement was essential to delivering improved outcomes. These successes were often used as case studies within the locality, and led to other officers and councillors taking participatory approaches. Success breeds success.

Increase in volunteering?

The idea of getting those within the civil service to get involved within community activities will, hopefully, go a long way in encouraging more organisations to promote employee supported volunteering within their sector as it is a key point within most organisations Corporate Social Responsibility.

Some of the barriers that has prevented people from getting formal volunteering:

Work commitments 59 %

Doing other things in their spare time 31%

Looking after children or the home 29%

Lack of awareness - not heard about volunteering opportunities 15% [14] 

(Citizenship survey: 2009)

The question is how will these issues be addressed and is the 'third sector' strategic and organised enough to overcome and address these barriers. Looking at the table below there needs to be a turn around in the numbers that volunteer and there needs to be an increase otherwise the sector would find it difficult to justify any funding received without enough involvement from community members they would be more accountable to the local authority.

Social exclusion Social inclusion and Exclusion

Building on the BS idea of a National Citizen Service for 16 year olds, I would like to see a 'Green Gap Year' offered to students between school and university; as a form of purposeful and peaceful National Service.

In this way young people could serve the needs of society, gain valuable life and study skills in the process (timekeeping, team work etc.) and be helped to make the transition from school and dependence, to university and greater independence. It could also support and foster community ventures, and make a practical contribution towards building the Coalition's 'Big Society'/movement to localism.

This might go a long way in addressing the social group that normally and are more likely to get involved with formal volunteering. If 16-18 years olds are engaged into civic service it would be greater for the sector and help distinguish the 'stereotypical' view that volunteers. The issue is however how will those over the ages of 16-18 who have no formal qualifications be engaged into encouraged to volunteer, especially as those who fall into these groups make up a huge chuck on the population within deprived areas. The chart on the next page shows the groups that have taken part in formal volunteering.

Review and Summary

The 'Big Society' initiative is something that the voluntary and community sectors are fully supporting but they are also aware that in a time of austerity the face challenges to raise interest themselves and possibly the biggest question is that if the agenda does not pick up momentum and filters to the most deprived areas within the UK would it be a success? The third sector must also organise themselves so that they are delivering on things that not only the community wants, but most importantly, and in my view on the things that are needed. What local communities actually want does not necessarily coincide with the needs of the local area.


Big Society Not Big Government' Publication by the Conservatives, July 2009

Big Society Not Big Government' Publication by the Conservatives, July 2009

National Community and Voluntary organisations data service; 2009 - Citizenship survey, 2009

Citizenship survey, 2009

http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/speeches-and-transcripts/2010/07/big-society-speech-53572 - accessed on the 12/12/2010