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Big Society


The fact is that the Big Society already exists. The challenge for us in local government is that we may no longer know what it looks like or how to work with it effectively

Rod Bluh, Leader of Swindon, LGiU c’llr., August 2011, p. 28.

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The Big Society is a key policy initiative promoted by David Cameron and the Conservative Party, and now built into the programme of the coalition government

It builds on ideas developed by ‘progressive conservative’ commentators such as the so-called ‘Red Tory’ Philip Blond, as well as thinkers such as E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful.

According to David Cameron, the Big Society constitutes, ‘the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street’. The Office for Public Management has described the Big Society’s ‘key building blocks’ as being: ‘localism, decentralisation, and nurturing responsible and empowered communities’. Associated with a rise in volunteering, self-help and social enterprises in place of state provision of services, its exact scope and meaning remains unclear, however.

A Cabinet Office press release, Building the Big Society, states: ‘We want to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want… Government on its own cannot fix every problem. We are all in this together. We need to draw on the skills and expertise of people across the country as we respond to the social, political and economic challenges Britain faces.’

In summer 2010, the government announced that community projects would be established in four parts of the UK - Liverpool; Eden Valley, Cumbria; Windsor and Maidenhead; and the London borough of Sutton – under the auspices of the Big Society programme. The choice of these pilot sites, unusually, did not occur through a bidding process by interested candidates but rather was made by ministers, apparently through personal contacts. Liverpool subsequently withdrew in autumn 2010.

The principles underlying the Big Society appear to be co-productive in the sense that they emphasise active input by citizens and greater entrepreneurship among public service workers, set free from targets. However it isn’t clear yet how far citizens will be working collaboratively with staff (e.g. to run local transport initiatives or shape council spending priorities), undertaking self-help (running a local library, museum or pub to avoid it closing) or volunteering to support others (as in the National Citizen’s Service).

Some of the funding for the Big Society will come from the Big Society Bank, utilising dormant assets in UK bank accounts. However critics of the programme have argued that the initiative is not adequately funded and is simply seeking to use volunteer labour to fill in gaps created by public spending cuts. The Office for Public Management has highlighted ‘understandable concern about the potential impact on more disadvantaged communities who do not currently have the necessary resources (e.g. time and social capital) to be able to take advantage of these opportunities’ (OPM, 2010).  

Other elements of the Big Society agenda pick up more longstanding themes in public service reform – e.g. getting citizens to rate public services (e.g. online rating of experiences at GP surgeries), recruitment of community organizers (following longstanding UK experiments with ‘street reps’) and transfer of the management and/or ownership of public assets to community organizations (as has been common in rural areas for many years).



Climb Back into the tree....







Cameron, D. (2010): Transcript of Big Society speech, 19 July 2010.

NCVO (2010): Briefing on the Big Society, London.

Office for Public Management (2010): Building the Big Society.

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