IIPP Student Ideas
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IIPP Student Ideas

The true meaning of the Big Society

Image: Conservatives, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By Eliza Baring, IIPP MPA student

A Big Society, or a small state? A vision for thriving communities, able to exercise countervailing power; or a thinly veiled attempt to cut public spending, shifting the burdens of the welfare state onto community and voluntary organisations? This blog looks at the coalition government’s Big Society agenda of 2010, and its legacy in the third sector today.

Current climate

After more than a decade of austerity, the cost of living crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic have accelerated pre-existing trends. The gap between the worst off and the well off continues to widen, with growing inequality of education, health, income and wealth.

Deprivation among the most vulnerable groups in society has deepened, and many more households have been pulled below the breadline.

Voluntary and community organisations (VCOs) have been doing the vital work of plugging the gaps left by an increasingly over-stretched welfare system — supporting the NHS during the Covid crisis, making sure families can put food on the table, providing education and support services to disadvantaged communities.

But at the same time, VCOs are facing economic pressures, as well as an increasingly hostile regulatory and political environment.

Many donations dried up during the pandemic, particularly for grassroots charities. And Brexit has left the sector worse off, with EU funding replaced by a smaller UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

The Lobbying Act continues to have a significant stifling effect on charities’ campaigning activities, with many concerned about avoiding regulatory action. This has been exacerbated by the weaponisation of the regulator, as we see complaints to the Charity Commission used as ammunition in the “culture wars”. And the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill is set to curtail the freedoms of civil society.

The government’s much anticipated Levelling Up White Paper was published earlier this year, alongside a response to MP Danny Kruger’s report discussing how civil society might contribute to levelling up.

These papers emphasise an ambition to devolve more power to communities and strengthen civil society. However, the plans have since been criticised for being significantly under-resourced, with no new funding for government departments to carry the 12 “missions”.

Policy history

In this discrepancy between governments’ apparent ambitions for civil society and the voluntary and community sector on the one hand, and its funding of it on the other, we can see parallels with the coalition government’s Big Society agenda of 2010, and new brand of Conservatism.

This was announced as a plan to devolve power from “the elite in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street”, and in doing so restore power in communities.

However, this was community empowerment in name only. Without additional funding, it merely shifted the burdens of the welfare state onto charities.

When the Conservative-led coalition was elected, the country was still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis. David Cameron and George Osborne pledged to reduce the deficit that had accumulated under the previous Labour government.

Their steadfast pursuit of fiscal austerity saw unprecedented cuts to public spending. Local government and welfare services were hardest hit, and across the country many charities were left to plug the widening gaps.

At the same time, Cameron announced his vision for civil society, promising to empower communities, promote social action and “open up” public service contracts to charities and social enterprises to bid for. At its heart, this “Big Society” came hand in hand with a rapidly shrinking state.

Payment by Results: Subjecting charities to market forces

A key policy proposal in the Big Society agenda was the use of a Payment by Results (PbR) model for awarding public service contracts to independent providers. Under this model, a charity delivering a service would only get paid once certain pre-agreed results had been delivered.

The underlying rationale of PbR was that, by making payment conditional on demonstrating results, efficiency and innovation would be encouraged. This has its roots in New Public Management, which came to prominence in the 1970s in tandem with economic liberalism, and put a premium on efficiency and value for money.

However, this policy put smaller organisations, with less capital to invest in delivering the services and results required to win government contracts, at a huge disadvantage. Furthermore, these organisations were less able to shoulder the financial risk incurred by this funding model.

Fundamentally, PbR disregarded the value of the work of VCOs. By prioritising efficiency of service delivery, the policy tried to measure a sector characterised by altruism using the logic of self-interested utility maximisation. Indeed, many smaller, grassroots organisations are uniquely placed to understand and serve the best interests of the communities they work in.

Modern Conservatism and the VCS today

While Cameron’s Big Society vision failed to take hold, its modern Conservative underpinnings persist today. We see this in Johnson’s praise of volunteers and mutual aid groups that stepped up to help the vulnerable during the pandemic, at the same time as cutting Universal Credit, leaving many of these vulnerable people worse off, and limiting pay rises for NHS workers to 1% — a Conservatism distancing itself from Thatcherite individualism, and emphasising the importance of a self-determining society.

At the same time, today’s fiscal policy is much more expansive than the austerity measures of the 2010s. Taxes are set to increase to their highest level in 70 years, and government spending has remained high since the pandemic.

However, the role of the state arguably remains one of a market fixer, rather than being a proactive investor and shaper of markets. Outsourcing in the public sector is endemic, with around one third of government spending on public services going to independent providers.

Driven by the logic of NPM, these outsourcing practices miss the point of the third sector. Much of the value charities and community organisations create cannot be evidenced in hard numbers, or by meeting efficiency targets.

Moreover, service provision is just one of many things VCOs do. Campaigning, advocacy, providing access to justice and legal support, and building power in communities are just some of the other things these organisations do, and fund, in civil society.

If the government is to realise its ambitions of levelling up communities across the UK — to genuinely devolve power — it must ensure that public money reaches voluntary and community sector organisations that continue to do this vital work in communities across the country, enhancing the social value it creates.

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