Happy Birthday Big Society? More Challenges Ahead

The latest thoughts from Dr Tim Rudd as he turns his attention to the Big Society.

Happy Birthday Big Society? More Challenges Ahead

 Dr. Tim Rudd Livelab www.livelab.org.uk May 17th 2011


 It is now one year since the coalition Government came to power. In that time, its flagship concept, the Big Society, has come under intense scrutiny and criticism. This short provocation article suggests however, that far from weathering the initial storms of protest, the Government is likely to encounter even greater challenge and criticisms as it attempts to operationalise the concept over the coming year. The article overviews some of the main and potentially enduring criticisms drawn from the literature to date, and considers some of the forthcoming challenges the Government may face in convincing the public of the validity of the Big Society.

 Continuing challenges? The story so far

 The intended aims of the Big Society are purportedly to devolve power away from central Government and to encourage people to take a greater and more active role in their communities through volunteerism, involvement in co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises. Taken at face value, many would concur that stimulating such activity for social good, and empowering local people to shape social action, is a desirable aim. However, many commentators imply that the Government has actually symbolically misappropriated the language of long and valued traditions in order to create a political discourse and narrative that attempts to deflect the emphasis away from other conflicting political motives, aims and decisions. In the longer term, they argue, this will actually condemn the Big Society as a concept to failure.

 The Government has already come under intense criticism for attempting to convince the public of the Big Society’s authenticity against the backdrop of cuts to key services, initiatives and activities in the very sectors and areas the Big Society purports to support and stimulate. The argument here, is that many of the national, community, voluntary and charity organisations previously engaged in vital activities have been shut down, or had their funding and functions significantly reduced as a result of cuts. From this perspective, critics argue, the Big Society represents little more than an ideological smokescreen in attempt to justify cuts and get people to perform essential services for free. Other commentators further argue that it essentially amounts to a thinly veiled attempt to extend market forces into areas previously deemed as sacrosanct, creating intense competition and creating a quasi-market by enabling some social enterprises to extend their scope in areas where they may not necessarily have the required expertise, sensitivity and skills. Such detractors therefore imply that the coalition Government’s actions are, in fact, an attempt to engineer changes to the political and social landscape, regulating the role of the community and third sector groups and intensifying competition for scarce resources, rather than encouraging the levels of cooperation and collaboration needed to address complex needs. 

 As well as those that question the real ideological and political intent underpinning the Government’s approach, numerous and more specific criticisms have already questioned the validity of the Big Society. For example, as well as the cuts to many national, community, voluntary and charity organisations, it is argued that many of the places and spaces thought to be central to the needs of communities and community groups, such as libraries, parks, youth centres, and so forth, are also increasingly vulnerable.

 There are those who argue that whilst the Big Society explicitly acknowledges that there are great inequalities that exist within our society, there has not yet been a comprehensive and adequate analysis of the potential negative impacts on more vulnerable groups, nor how the Government intends to ensure it will support those who may not be able to mobilise themselves in a more competitive system. As has been documented on numerous occasions, existing levels of economic, social and cultural resource can be significant mediating factors in the ability to harness opportunity. It has also been highlighted that a range of other variables can influence and impact upon people’s ability and willingness to participate in community and voluntary activity. These include factors such as occupation, time and financial constraints, qualifications, family commitments, ethnicity and age, physical and mental health and well being, fear of losing entitlements, fear of litigation, red tape and bureaucracy, availability of advice and support, as well as issues relating to geographical location. The ‘typical’ volunteer profile in the ‘formal’ volunteering sector is ‘white, in the 35-64 age range, and in managerial type employment’. Whilst this doesn’t account for the more informal and ‘below the radar’ groups[1], it does suggest that ability and willingness to volunteer or enter the sector, at least in more formal situations, is structured by demographic and cultural variables, life experience, cultural dispositions and capacity. Similarly, the impact of cuts, both on informal and formal third sector groups, and on the communities they work with and for, is also argued to be dependent on the levels of resilience that different groups and individuals can exert. This is a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional concept that can be employed on a number of different levels. For example, different levels of emotional, psychological, individual, collective, social, cultural and organisational resilience will all play a role in the ability to withstand the impacts of the cuts and influence the likelihood of individuals and groups surviving tougher times and mobilising themselves to take action in the future.

 For some charities and third sector organisations there may be issues around insurance, training and dealing with issues arising from any change or growth in remit. There may also be associated reputational risks for organisations who may extend their work beyond their current charitable aims, especially if they are forced to compete with others for scarce resources and become accountable for things beyond their normal remit in order to assure survival.

 Other critics have stated that the Government have made a naïve, or taken for granted assumption that implies more people have the will, desire, interest or capability to become involved in community focussed developments. As a significant percentage of the population is already engaged in some such activity through choice, the argument is whether it is likely that those who are not, or cannot, be involved will suddenly become engaged because the Government states it as one of its ambitions? Based on such a perception, many critics claim that the Big Society, in reality, threatens to undermine significant and substantial work that occurs within the sector, and will ultimately leave many of the more disadvantaged and powerless groups further marginalised. In considering the implications of the Big Society as a political initiative, its opponents contend, the Government should surely give greater consideration to issues of power, access to economic, social and cultural capitals and resources and the ability of different groups to access and harness any opportunities that may arise. Failure to do so may not only result in action that challenges existing perceptions about social justice and democracy but is likely to further undermine the credibility of the Big Society and the political party(s) with which it is associated.

 From a different perspective, there are also those who assert that the Government are presenting an uncritical notion that community action is automatically always positive, highlighting a number of groups who have mobilised themselves as communities of action for somewhat dubious purposes.

 Another core criticism is that the Big Society as both a concept, and as a set of related activities, lacks detail. A recent survey suggests that a significant percentage of the population sees it as either ‘spin’ or are remain unsure about what it means in reality. David Cameron has asserted however, that it is not the Government’s role to define the exact approach or realities of community based action but rather it is to create the conditions to stimulate more action led by the communities and organisations within the sector. There are also promises of a number of forthcoming policies and initiatives that reportedly will make it easier for community and volunteer groups, mutuals and so forth to take ownership and define their own activities. For example, there is a pledge to set up of a Big Society Bank, a transition fund, the training of community organisers, and to bring in legislation that reduces red tape. However, a year on from gaining power, there still remains uncertainty and a lack of clarity regarding the type and extent of programmes, initiatives, pilots, policy changes, funding distribution and the regulation and control of programmes.

 It is highly unlikely that the criticisms targeted at the Big Society, outlined above, will disappear from debates as the Government seeks to mobilise the Big Society from concept to reality. Moreover, as the section below highlights, there may well be even harsher criticisms and challenges ahead for the Government.

 Forthcoming Challenges for the Government’s Big Society?

 With significant deficit reduction measures already undertaken, the associated and substantial loss of services and the loss of thousands of direct and indirect jobs of people working in this sector, it is unlikely that the Government will be able to imply that they are cutting ‘non jobs’ created by the previous Government, or are further rationalising state expenditure, for very much longer. If the Big Society fails to take shape or doesn’t deliver significant impact in the coming months, it is likely to be derided far more extensively as a failure based on ‘spin’ rather than being of any substance. Even if, in the second year of the Government’s tenure, clearer and more substantial policies, processes and resources are put in place to stimulate community based action, participation and engagement, how long will it take the resulting programmes to have a significant action on the ground? Questions are already being asked as to why a concept of such seemingly central importance has not already led to significant action. Questions will likely also be asked as to the extent of the damage that may have been caused in the interim period. The old adage ‘a week is a long time in politics’ is often quoted but this may fade into insignificance alongside the months and years it may take for any benefits to reach some struggling community based groups and individuals. No doubt more detailed and nuanced stories about such negative impacts will begin to emerge. So can, or perhaps how, can the Government speed up the processes and programmes to support the development of a meaningful and fair Big Society over the coming months?

 There have already been many questions as to whether a cabinet, the vast majority of whom are extremely wealthy individuals, can empathise and truly understand the needs of less powerful groups in society. Certain sections of the media will no doubt pick up on the huge disparities between the lifestyles and riches of ministers and those of more vulnerable groups, if policies are seen to be inefficient or ineffectual.  However, it is perhaps unfair to suggest that just because decision makers have significantly greater wealth, income, power and social standing, that they are incapable of understanding needs of those far less privileged. History is full of shining examples of interventions and philanthropic gestures by wealthy individuals and groups that have significantly improved the situations of the most deprived and disadvantaged members of society. It is likely however, that there will be continuing critiques of the Government’s imposition and approach that has and will continue to alienate many respected groups and organisations within the sector, unless there are demonstrable signs of intent to listen to, work with, and put power back in the hands of the sector and the people on the ground. So how can the Government convince the public that the Big Society is not just ‘spin’ and will help those in need in society?

 Much of the literature in the community research field identifies that inequalities occur across numerous variables and that inequalities are often complex and varied. Inequalities in power, economic, social and cultural capitals and wealth, time, energy, and so forth, all come in to play in relation to the degree to which people access, mobilise and engage in community life. The same sort of differentials are likely to play a big part in the likelihood of different groups being able to develop projects and activities that may become available through the Government’s Big Society agenda.  So, how will the Government ensure a fair distribution of benefits from Big Society initiatives and how can they account for diversity of need and differences in power?

 Historically, top down policies and state imposed legislation often seeks to create measures and structures in order to develop accountability checks within the system. However, herein lies another challenge. How can, or perhaps should, a Government put in place regulatory procedures and legislation that are not flawed, or expose them to further damaging criticisms? 

 Firstly, if Government takes too light a touch, then power differentials are likely to come in to play and accusations will be made that relative inaction has led to some groups benefiting over others. This could be potentially argued on two levels, namely; in relation to the intended beneficiaries and related activities; and in relation to an uneven playing field that may be created on the delivery side, especially when taking into account the impact of prior cuts on certain groups and providers.

 Secondly, if criteria are put in place in order to both identify and prioritise the most ‘worthy’ groups of beneficiaries and the preferred ‘support providers’, this will no doubt open up a hornet’s nest with competing groups contesting any rationales and decisions. Furthermore, it will leave the Government, and the Big Society, open to further criticisms regarding its ideological intent and fairness with every decision and project being scrutinised for potential bias politically, economically and culturally. The natural political reaction to such complex issues is often to set up working parties, rationalise selection through a set of procedures and bureaucratic processes, and to either employ an external organisation, create a function within a Government Department, or establish a semi autonomous body, to run, manage, and take accountability for the running of initiatives and the distribution of resources. If any of these were to be the case, the Government again would be in for harsh criticism, either for expanding state roles and expenditure, spending money on contractors, or setting up what might be, in effect, a quango. The latter is surely unlikely given the swift and large-scale dismantling of such bodies following the coalitions election. However, if any of the above scenarios do play out in reality, then many will surely argue that cuts to community and service focussed organisations as part of the ‘bonfire of the quangos’, was therefore ostensibly ideological. Furthermore, there would no doubt be claims that such organisations would have been more knowledgeable, and indeed better placed, to understand the needs of the particular communities they served and to manage activity on the ground.

 Thirdly, with the allocation of scarce resources, it is likely that any processes put in place will also look to employ ‘impact’ and ‘success’ criteria for projects and initiatives that receive funding, especially if there is intense competition to assure funds. This again raises a whole set of potential problems relating to what success or impact means, and indeed who makes those decisions, and why. Many commentators argue that such measures have been introduced by Government’s in other fields and that this has resulted in a ‘mission shift’, qualitatively changing the nature of the field, the roles and remit of organisations, professional practice, and the nature of outcomes for intended beneficiaries. The argument is that rather than being useful measures to inform and support developments, they become cumbersome, impractical, abstract and proxy measures for political management of complex systems that cannot adequately account for the huge range of competing needs, demands and interests. In short, it is argued they can become powerful mechanisms that actually attempt to measure the wrong things but in so doing become drivers of changing practice within the field. The danger of this scenario, therefore, is that a Big Society initiative, which it is claimed seeks to develop community based approaches, could be in danger of alienating those individuals and groups in the field who previously largely self managed their activities and were respected for the work undertaken. If there is a perceptible ‘mission creep’ or change of focus for such groups as a result of Government legislation, there are likely to be further claims about the ideological imposition underpinning such mechanisms. The Government will have further challenges to address if different groups, who previously may have regarded themselves as collaborators and partners in the field, are forced to enter into fierce competition with one another over scarce funds and resources. Potentially, this could begin to unravel significant developments that have enabled more collaborative and cohesive responses to common, if not identical, challenges. It may also undermine the ability to establish more coherent and interconnected solutions to complex problems, which could influence public perceptions of the Big Society. The complexity, different needs and foci, and the qualitatively different requirements of various groups, organisations and individuals, could essentially render any meaningful or manageable impact measures, unworkable.

 How can the Government manage seeming contradictions between the small state and a state led Big Society  – within and beyond the coalition? Critics have pointed out that there is significant contradiction between a state imposed concept for, and regulation of, community developments, and the findings of the research in the field, which identifies that effective and sustainable community developments are formed, nurtured and owned by the communities themselves. There also seems to be a contradiction between notions supporting the reduction of state intervention, whilst at the same time intervening and setting the foundations through which much future activity in the field will be structured. 

 Policies are often a compromise between contradictory views and beliefs held within the same political party. Clearly there are those within the Conservative party who draw on the different and numerous ideological and philosophical beliefs, – conservative, libertarian, liberal, neo liberal and so forth. So it is likely that there will be disagreements within the Conservative Party around how the Big Society should evolve. Politics is often referred to as ‘the art of compromise’, so there are likely to be many twists and turns in the life and shape of the Big Society. For example, one only has to consider how a call for a Big Society, which suggests it is focussed on empowering communities and giving citizens power, responsibility and the autonomy to create their own civil society, appears in stark contrast to Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that; “There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families”. Such differing perspectives highlight the diversity and potentially conflicting nature of perspectives and philosophies underpinning political decisions within a single party. The nature, positioning, deals and evolution of perspectives over time will no doubt further mediate the manner and extent to which philosophies are interpreted and re-interpreted in the complex process of policy development and legislation. The extent to which any policy or initiative promotes (or is perceived to promote) ‘free market’ models and practices into the third sector, will be accused of helping to create the underlying conditions for an unequal distribution of power and control, promoting competition and individualism, resulting in top-down ideologically imposed practices. These will likely be berated for being wholly inappropriate in relation to the delivery of essential services and support, as they will be seen as divisive amongst the communities and their practices within the field. Any potential conflicts within the Conservative party are likely to be compounded further by the differing perspectives amongst their coalition partners. Add into the mix the perspectives and influences of other parties, others who have direct influence on political decision making processes, the general public, including those in, or who used to be in, the third sector, then it is likely to be a tough test to develop approaches that are coherent and do not alienate substantial numbers.

 The Big Society Network has already been established to illustrate some of the great work being undertaken in the sector and as a means of demonstrating the activity that the Government claim they want to stimulate. Critics argue that such initiatives represent an attempt to  make political capital, under the banner of the Big Society, from existing work and projects that were already taking place before the coalition Government came to power. The exemplification of good work in the sector, however, is no doubt a potentially useful and illuminating resource. Indeed, if such a resource was devoid of its Party Political and ideological context and ownership, it would probably be better received and accepted as a mechanism to support greater information exchange, knowledge management, collaboration and communication – areas many in the sector have identified as areas requiring development. However, what we do know about effective online social and community led resources, is that the communities themselves must feel a clear sense of ownership, need,  control over agendas, format and function, in order to make them self sustaining without the need for significant additional seeding, moderation and investment.

 The Big Society Network claims that; “… over half the population are already involved in community action that helps create the Big Society – attending community events, supporting local campaigns, or supporting their neighbours”. Detractors will argue that if this claim is true, it further begs the question as to why a Government that states it wants to hand power to communities, feels it should intervene in such a direct and politically motivated manner in such a previously thriving sector. There are those that argue that even if there was a real need to rationalize the sector in the face of economic uncertainty, any Government wishing to find new ways to stimulate the sector should have instead taken overt steps to put power in the hands of those groups and communities on the ground to develop strategies and initiatives, rather than imposing a state/party politically led approach. This, symbolically at least, appears to have moved decision making power away from those better placed to make such decisions and simultaneously may have caused irreparable damage to groups and relationships within the sector. 

 David Cameron himself stated that the Big Society is not entirely new and that; “…so much of it has actually been going on for years”. Detractors, quickly seized on this to ask why the Government were imposing cuts that were clearly damaging work in what has traditionally been a thriving sector? Others questioned why the Government felt the need to postion themselves as central to such activity without significant understanding or consultation, unlesss there were deeper rooted party political and ideological interests at play. Such dissenting voices are likely to suggest that the only way the Big Society can be ‘saved’ is if Government take real steps to ensure it devolves power in a fair and equal way and removes itself, as far as is practically possible, from aspects of control.

 Now, over one year on, the Big Society as a concept will come under more scrutiny than ever before. Yesterday (16th May 2011), The Report of the Commision for the Big Society set out recommendations it felt would help the Big Society take shape. No doubt there will be many other views and recommendations in the coming months. What we will need to consider beyond the potential problems arising from cuts, is whether Government decisions and interventions will have fundamentally changed the sector, and if so, in what ways; whether this has been to the benefit or detriment of communities and individuals; and what the longer term effects will be on notions relating to social justice and responsibility.

 Selected references

 The Coalition: our programme for government. HM Government. Crown. May 2010.


 Have no doubt, the big society is on its way. David Cameron:. The Observer (12/02/11). http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/12/david-cameron-big-society-good

Cameron’s “big society” relaunch repeats old errors. George Eaton, 14 February 2011. New Statesman.


 McCabe, A. (ed.). Below the Radar in a Big Society? Reflections on community engagement, empowerment and social action in a changing policy context. Third Sector Research Centre. Working Paper 51, December 2010.


 Oppenheim, C., Cox, E. and Platt, R. (2010) Regeneration through co-operation: Creating a framework for communities to act together. Manchester: Co-operatives UK.

 Sutcliffe, R. and Holt, R. Who is Ready for the Big Society? Feb. 2011. Consulting inplace.



 The Report of the Commission on the Big Society. Powerful People, Responsible Society. May 16th 2011. ACEVO


[1] See McCabe (2010)

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