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This report will be focusing on the Big Society agenda which was introduced by the Coalition government in 2010. David Cameroon first used the term Big Society in the Hugo Young memorial in 2009. He was determined to move from the Big Government by creating the Big Society which meant that more power and decision making was being given to individuals, neighbourhoods and local government. Furthermore, meaning that that the state will have less power. This is called decentralisation or devolution and also came with the new management in the term localism (Evans, K. 2011).
David Cameroon stated that the Big Society would help to amend financially, societally and politically broken Britain. The Coalition government's first plan was to mend financially broken Britain, through public spending cuts. They promised to work with local authorities in order of promoting the delivery of public services by social enterprises, charities and the voluntary sector (Conservative Party, 2010 cited in Evans, K. 2011).
Evans, K (2011 p.165-166), stated that ' In this context, the voluntary sector is characterised in diverse, and sometimes contradictory ways: as longstanding, independent and separate from state services; as competitors in the commissioning
and procurements 'marketplace' for public contracts; as the vehicles through which citizens and current practitioners of public services could enact a 'right' to take over their services and breakaway from public sector control; as overly dependent on public funding; as cheaper, more efficient ways of delivering services; and as better quality, more innovative and responsive service providers' Evans, K (2011 p.165-166).
The Coalition government stated that by commissioning the voluntary sector, does not decrease the size or reach of the Big State, it just changes the means of delivering it. Evans, K 2011 p. 166 stated that 'one of the vanguard policies of the Big Society, the encouragement of what would be called 'management takeovers' in the corporate sector, but by public authority employees appears likely to become little more than a lever for the creation of new competitors in an existing public sector marketplace. For the public employees who may currently be considering such a step, they will have to weigh up the potential attractions of running their team or department themselves as a co-operative or social enterprise, against the fact that they will still be just as vulnerable to public spending cuts (possiblymore so as contractors than as public sector staff), and the possibility that they may soon find themselves outbid by larger organisations, some of which will be private sector companies that can offer economies of scale in pricing and more experienced tendering skills, when the commissioning cycle comes round again' (Evans, K 2011 p. 166).
The government suggested that the capability of the voluntary sector in recruiting and motivating individuals is the cheapest way to public services as volunteering is one of the vital features of defining the voluntary and community sectors compared with the private and public sectors. Furthermore, the government stated that voluntary sector can offer good value for money value to any state spending on them, through charitable fundraising and volunteer capacity (Evans, K 2011 p. 166).
The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has critiqued Big Society plans (Coote, 2010), highlighting that, in a profoundly socio-economically unequal society such as the UK, the ability to participate in volunteer action is also unequally distributed, and limited by inequalities in capacity, access and time. Building this 'Big Society' depends crucially on people having enough time to engage in local action. While of course everyone has the same number of hours in the day, some have a lot more control over their time than others. People with low-paid jobs and big family responsibilities; especially lone parents tend to be poor in discretionary time as well as money. In short, long hours, low wages and lack of control over how time is spent undermine a key premise of the 'Big Society', which is that social and financial gains will come from replacing paid with unpaid Labour (Evans, K 2011 p. 167).
The second major objective of the Big Society was to mend 'societally Broken Britain', by placing emphasis on the importance of individual action, activism and self-reliance - people doing things to help themselves and each other out of the goodness of their hearts or the fire in their belly, rather than waiting for, or 'depending on', the State to do it for them. Again, the primary vehicle for this is viewed to be volunteering (which has already been extensively discussed here in relation to public service reform), but with an added emphasis on nurturing people's sense of community, citizenship and civic duty (Evans, K 2011 p. 167-168).
The third big aim of the Big Society, to mend politically Broken Britain, has the most wide ranging and potentially radical implications for the whole of society, although it receives perhaps less public attention as being what the Government really means by 'Big Society'. Forged as they were during the collapse of public confidence in political accountability during the parliamentary expenses scandals of 2009, Big Society reforms essentially promise a complete inversion of Government power structures, a dismantling of the institutions and secrecies of the Big State, while putting citizens themselves in possession of information and new rights to know and challenge the fine detail of Government accounts and activities. This aspect of the Big Society agenda combines major, wholesale devolution of budgets and responsibilities, with the removal of almost all centralised ring fences, regulations and requirements on how they are to be spent and delivered. It is the driver behind a plethora of fundamental reviews of inspection bodies, regulatory frameworks and monitoring bodies, and hundreds of big national organisations, often characterised by Government as: bureaucratic and ineffective; out of touch with the priorities and needs of taxpayers and service users; and, institutionally prone to profligate spending of public finances for which they are largely unaccountable. Performance management and monitoring of local authorities by central government is to disappear, with Whitehall departments refocused on plans to deliver only the reforms within their direct control, rather than being held accountable for whole systems of public service from top to bottom. Replacing the former framework by which local authorities were assessed, inspected and rated for their performance, there will now be a range of prescribed and discretionary sets of data and other information that all citizens will be entitled to know, and to use as the evidence with which to lobby and challenge politicians, local and national government departments. Whitehall has already initiated an extensive and frank process of publishing the minutiae of departmental spending, as well as their business plans and 'structural reform plans' (HM Government, 2010), as mechanisms expected to enable greater transparency
and accountability of the national Government to its voters. New democratic rights, such as constituency powers to recall MPs for misconduct, and new elected positions in the local public sector landscape, are expected but yet to be clearly pinned down or legislated for. For the children's sector, this is perhaps where some of the most significant structural changes and impacts begin to appear. The abolition of the Contact Point database1 was one of the earliest and most publicised withdrawals of a national system driven from Whitehall. But it was only the first. Schools are to be removed from legal requirements to participate in their local children and young people's partnerships, and given complete autonomy over the budgets devolved to them. Health services for children and parents will be decided upon, and purchased directly by, their neighbourhood family doctors. The national Children's Workforce Development Council will be wound up in 2012. The national vetting and barring regulations for staff and volunteers working with children are suspended, pending the outcomes of a substantial review of the systems and regulations surrounding child protection practice. OFSTED's inspection powers and functions across all schools and children's services face potential relaxation and reform. All these (and many more) reforms have profound impacts for the local service landscape serving children and young people, and the understandings that professionals, service-planners and policy-makers within the sector have developed over many years, of the checks and balances, quality standards and minimum requirements that are, or should be, common to all services for children, young people and families across the country (Evans, K 2011 p.169-170).
Many successful charities have always embraced the principles of the Big Society, before it acquired this label, and, in practice, many initiatives announced as part of the Big Society push were already being developed by the previous government. Also, as a result of the 'contract culture' and the introduction of a mixed economy of care, a significant number of charities are already involved in public service delivery.10 In this respect, the Big Society may simply be a profile-raising exercise for such organisations, with an exhortation to others to follow suit (Morris, D. 2012 p. 134).
A big society for big charities?
While smaller local charities may welcome the opportunity to get more involved in public service delivery, barriers, such as lack of capacity or competition from larger and national charities and indeed the private sector, raise questions about their sustainability. Earlier research by the Charity Commission126 concluded that there are risks of creating a restricted market where only those charities above a certain size and capacity can successfully compete for future delivery of public services. The irony is that small local charities, with local knowledge and flexibility to respond to the wide diversity of local needs - that epitomise Big Society principles - are least likely to be fit to fulfil Big Society objectives (Morris, D. 2012 p. 134).
The Prime Minister has said that groups should, for example, be able to run post offices, libraries and transport services and shape housing developments.127 The Localism Bill includes a range of measures designed to empower local community groups, including the right to buy community resources, such as community centres and libraries, and the community right to challenge the way local services, such as children's centres, social care or transport, are run. Charities and other voluntary sector bodies, together with parish councils and local authority employees, will be able to express an interest in providing a public service. They will then be entitled to compete with all other bidders, which may include private sector companies, in a procurement exercise to be carried out by the local authority. Yet, small local charities may well be by-passed for the impersonal, but low-cost, national corporations, as far removed from the localism agenda as can be imagined. Many small local charities, that have not managed a contract before, will clearly need significant help to put them in the position to win bids (Morris, D. 2012 p. 150).
In essence, the Big Society stems from a two-fold critique not only of New Labour but also aspects of previous Conservative governments. It suggests that both the Conservative and the Labour governments allowed civil society to shrivel because they sanctioned a combination of unfettered market values and a strong authoritarian
state to dominate society. According to Phillip Blond (2010), a key architect of the Big Society, New Labour endorsed market values and the inevitability of globalisation and used the state to try and ameliorate the inequalities of the market. In a similar fashion, Blond suggested that the Thatcher governments not only encouraged an extreme individualism and the dominance of big business, but this, in turn, left a vacuum that was filled by an interventionist state. New Labour and Thatcherism are therefore viewed as culpable in allowing both the concentration of market power and state power, enabling people to abdicate personal responsibility. The focus, however, is on the corrosive effects of state power, enabling Blond to juxtapose Big Government with the Big Society, the latter an antidote to the former, and characterised as a civic space relatively free from top-down state control and filled by intermediary associations that operate under different principles from the state or the market. This formulation neatly sidesteps Blond's critique of markets as 'monopolised by vested interest and the dominance of the already wealthy' (Blond, 2010: 18) and focuses only on the shortcomings of the state (Bach, S. 2012 p. 403).
The second, closely related, element of the critique suggests that the New Labour (and the Thatcherite) approach to government was founded upon a profound misconception of what drives individual citizen action and how societies function (Norman, 2010). It was based on the assumption of individual utility maximisation; actions informed by a narrow economic rationality. New Labour's continued use of contracts and incentives, reflected in the reliance on market-type mechanisms and the maintenance of a targets-based performance regime, was based upon a similar economistic logic. Blond (2010) and Jordan (2010) countered this view and suggested that individuals are deeply embedded in families and communities, bound together by shared cultural values and traditions. These community members are driven by collective norms and the desire to achieve socially desirable goals rather than simply responding to individual economic incentives. The Big Society is therefore based on an appeal to liberate citizens from the technocratic systems of new public management and encourages them to participate and reshape public services (Jordan, 2010). This could signal that the public service workforce is to be re-empowered with professional authority restored and the power of managers and audit curbed, but there is a lack of clarity as to the precise balance of influence between employers, users and the workforce (Bach, S. 2012 p. 403-404).
The Big Society has been trumpeted as the defining policy of the coalition government and integral to the prime minister's plans for public services reform (New Economics Foundation, 2010; Norman, 2010). The Cabinet Office (2011a, 291) has described the Big Society as 'a positive vision which champions people's right to take control over their lives, to transform their neighbourhoods and to have access to innovative and responsive public services'. There has been widespread uncertainty, however, about the meaning and coherence of the programme (Public Administration Select Committee, 2011). There are few specific policy initiatives associated with the Big Society; rather, it is used as a narrative to weave together disparate policies and its imprecision may serve to disguise the extent of marketisation and service withdrawal associated with the coalition's public service agenda. The prime minister has identified three strands to the Big Society: community empowerment through decentralisation and localism; social action by encouraging volunteering and philanthropy; and opening up public services to a range of voluntary sector and other providers (Cameron, 2010). The first element of community empowerment has been translated into policies on localism and decentralisation. The emphasis on enhancing the role of local communities, rather than democratically accountable local authorities, continues a long tradition of Conservative government antipathy towards local government and its workforce (Laffin, 1989). Localism is an innocuous term, but the intent is to encourage competition and choice and many of the requirements of localism are prescribed by central government. The government's intent is clear from its guidance on the Localism bill, which aims to: 'identify and tackle public sector monopolies across the
board . . . all public services should be open to diverse provision' (Department for Communities and Local Government 2010: 9). The coalition is legislating to enable voluntary and community sector groups, as well as council employees, to challenge existing service provision and, depending on the outcome of a procurement process, scope to manage local services. The likelihood is that this will create much greater uncertainty for local authorities and may imply a return to forms of competitive tendering if challenges occur, a process associated with deteriorating terms and conditions of employment (Colling, 1999). A second element focuses on volunteering and fostering the role of charities by providing finance to help them tender and deliver public services. The Big Society Bank, now renamed Big Society Capital, has been established to provide funding to establish social enterprises and support charities, but it will not resolve the funding gap faced by many voluntary organisations as local authorities cut back funding to the sector (Public Administration Select Committee, 2011: 30) cited in (Bach, S. 2012 p. 404-405).
ASSESSING THE BIG SOCIETY
The Big Society has been subject to considerable scrutiny and many of its assumptions challenged. The most prominent criticism has been that the Big Society is an attempt to legitimate pervasive reductions in public service provision and employment, encouraging widespread privatisation of service provision in the guise of increased voluntary sector and mutual provision. This represents a clear ideological agenda to embed further market principles into public services masquerading as a non-political agenda of building civil society (Rutherford, 2010). Similar sentiments have been expressed forcefully by public service trade unions (Unison, 2011; Unite, 2011). The civil service trade union Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) concluded 'PCS opposes the Big Society initiative because all the evidence indicates that it is simply a meaningless name attached to a massive programme of privatisation' (PCS, 2011: 157 cited in (Bach, S. 2012 p. 405-406).
This supposedly new ideology borrows heavily from the 'compassionate Conservatism' that was promoted by George W. Bush in the United States during his narrowly successful presidential campaign in 2000. During the campaign Bush tried to appeal to the widespread resentment amongst the American public against federal government bureaucracy in Washington. He portrayed himself as an advocate of self-governance and a defender of individual freedom against government interference. Similar to the current political agenda of Cameron's Conservatives, Bush connected this with a promise to cut taxes and to reduce what he branded as government waste and bureaucracy. The role of the state was supposed to be reduced to the role of an activator of individual responsibility to enable people to help themselves and to end what was supposed to be dependence on the state. An essential part of this ideology is that essential public services like healthcare and education are best placed in the hands of private and voluntary organisations (Schweiger, C. 2010).
Centre-right parties across Europe have started to adopt this approach and are trying to sell it as something distinctively different from the laisser-faire individualism of the 1980s. From Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Nicholas Sarkozy in France to Angela Merkel and her new unashamedly neoliberal foreign minister Westerwelle, Centre-right governments are adopting an agenda which is deeply skeptical of an active role for the state in contemporary society. Rather than to call for radical reform of state structures they are now arguing for a new individualism which essentially results in the transfer of responsibility from the state to the individual. Some in the UK have called this the 'DIY revolution' (The Guardian, 15 April).
This new brand of Centre-right policies poses a fundamental challenge to progressives. Since the late 1990s many Centre-left governments have followed the middle-of-the-road policy of the 'Third Way'. It maintained high levels of public spending and active state involvement in the economy and society but at the same time displayed an underlying skepticism of the efficiency of the public sector. The result was the adoption of new public management strategies in the public sector, with steadily increasing levels of means-testing, performance monitoring and a focus on target-driven results. This has helped Centre-right parties in gaining electoral support for a new individualistic agenda, which is fundamentally orientated towards returning to the Thatcherite mantra of 'rolling back the state' (Schweiger, C. 2010).
It also explains why voters across Europe are rejecting the call for greater state-driven regulation in the wake of the global economic crisis and are instead increasingly turning towards Centre-right parties who promise to combine individual freedom with social inclusion by promoting greater self-responsibility. Progressives should respond to this challenge by re-emphasising the role of the state as the safeguard against irresponsible and profit-orientated market forces (like in the case of the financial industries). The progressive cause should also highlight that the state creates social cohesion on the basis of fair rules for the economic and social interaction of its citizens and support for the weaker sections of society. This demands that public services are well-funded, orientated towards the individual, flexible rather than monolithic, bureaucratic and target-driven. An electorally attractive progressive agenda for the 21st century has to rebuild trust in the state as the sum of all parts of a society and to expose the 'compassionate Conservatism' for what it really is: the abandonment of the principle of solidarity and the retreat into the private sphere. The 'Big Society' will inevitably lead to greater individualism and to the withdrawal of state support in crucial areas such as education and training, law and order and healthcare (Schweiger, C. 2010).