The end of the beginning for the Big Society

27 January 2011

It's been a bad week for the Big Society, says Adrian Brown.

On Monday, the Times led with ‘Big Society in crisis as economy weakens‘. [paywall]

On Tuesday, Sir Stuart Etherington, NCVO chief executive, warned that the Big Society risks being ‘one Big Disappointment‘ if charities aren’t given the funding they need as a new survey revealed that nearly three quarters of supported housing charities face ‘disproportionate’ cuts.

On Wednesday, research from Deloitte suggested that most councils are ‘baffled’ by the Big Society agenda and so have understandably failed to implement anything.

Regardless of what happens on Thursday and Friday, this isn’t looking great and some commentators are questioning whether the government is losing its nerve.

The beginning of the end?

Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of the Big Society? Despite the growing scepticism, the Prime Minister seems as keen as ever on the idea describing his agenda for public service reform as ‘a Big Society approach‘ just last week.

I first blogged about the Big Society last August. Since then the idea has become more refined. The three related strands of social action, community empowerment and public service reform have been explored in depth. Behind each of these headings there now lies a host of initiatives, some led by government, but many not. From public sector mutuals to yoursquaremile these ideas are all in varying stages of starting-up.

Time for action

I doubt that debating the finer points of the Big Society will get us much further. What the government requires now are tangible examples of what the Big Society looks like in reality building on the tentative steps already taken. It needs to move from talking to doing – recognising that this won’t happen overnight.

It will take time for new community groups to take over libraries; for free schools to be set-up; for the Big Society Bank to be established; and for police commissioners to be elected. This is to be expected, change on this scale is bound to take time. That doesn’t mean the entire project is doomed but rather the importance of sticking the course if you are embarking on any change of this scale.

The cuts agenda will also muddy the waters. Some charities will be forced to withdraw valuable services as budgets are cut. Hardly Big Society, critics will argue. And they’ll have a point – but this doesn’t necessarily invalidate the whole idea, it just highlights the fact that the cuts make this all the harder. Ministers need to be honest that running a fiscal consolidation alongside the Big Society will involve painful trade-offs and mistakes will be made along the way.

The government also needs to recognise that despite the ‘bottom up’ logic of the Big Society there is a lot that it can do to help the agenda along such as championing pilot projects, strengthening civil society and joining-up Whitehall. Without government as a catalyst the Big Society will surely fail.

The end of the beginning

So far we’ve seen the prologue. Act 1 of the Big Society is on the way. To achieve its objectives, the government needs to hold the course, rein in the rhetoric and focus on putting in place those bits of the Big Society agenda that it is responsible for while encouraging others to act.

To misquote Churchill, now this is not the end of the Big Society. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

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Comments (4)

  1. Andrew Brown on 28 January 2011 at 10:35 am

    Some charities will be forced to withdraw valuable services as budgets are cut.

    If New Philanthropy Capital are right and we are about to see £3bn cuts to statutorily funded charities I fear that it’ll be a few more than ‘some’ charities that’ll be withdrawing services.

    Between the CAB issuing redundancy notices to 900 of their staff, domestic violence charities in Devon seeing a 100% cut in their funding, and the closure of a charity that created 400,000 volunteering opportunities for young people a year, we’re starting to see what the collision between the government’s fiscal strategy and their political big idea looks like in real terms.

    Cameron may continue to want to talk up the Big Society, but the rhetoric looks pretty hollow from where I stand.

  2. Adrian Brown on 31 January 2011 at 2:18 pm

    Thanks Andrew, you make a very fair point. The government needs to do a much better job at engaging in an honest debate about the impact of cuts on the charitable sector. It is also worth putting the £3bn figure in the context of the £54bn total size of the sector. Cuts of 6% are drastic, especially at a time when the Big Society implies charities must do more, but this is not out of line with other cuts in the public sector. Being very open about this, and working out how best to support the sector over the next 12-18 months should be priorities for the government.

  3. [...] Adrian Brown from The Institute for Government has a lively blog, the latest entitled “The End of the beginning for the Big Society”. [...]

  4. Mark J Smith on 11 April 2011 at 7:27 pm

    Readers may be interested in the new book ‘Big Society Challenge’ edited by Marina Stott, which has 22 chapters from a range of vantage points on the big society proposals
    the book can be downloaded for free on
    http://www.keystonetrust.org.uk/documents/128.pdf
    also a description can be found on http://www.dta.org.uk/activities/campaigns/bigsocietychallenge http://www.bassac.org.uk/news/2011-01/the-big-society-challenge-launch

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