Why ‘Big Society’ is a dismantled concept in need of repair
Updated: Apr 6, 2021
The Big Society theme of David Cameron’s campaign at the 2010 election was the target of mass media and political lampooning. It continues to get a bashing, but the concept of a society where we are something bigger than our payslips and the effort to project it on today’s tired systems need to be maintained – argues Andrew Laird, director of Mutual Ventures.
David Cameron came under a lot of criticism for his focus on the “Big Society” theme during the 2010 general election – not least from his own MPs who found it too nebulous a concept to explain on the doorstep. It was broadly maligned and (deliberately?) misunderstood by the media as being entirely about getting people and communities to volunteer to deliver services the state had previously provided. So it ended up being seen as window dressing for austerity.
However, in the midst of all the lampooning, all the political parties were scrambling to claim ownership of the constituent parts of Big Society such as staff/community-owned public services and assets, devolution of local decision to local people, and in the words of the Guardian’s Jackie Ashley “the deep desire to be part of something bigger than our payslips”.
The 2010 election was a perfect example of the political short-termism demanded by a general election campaign resulting in the rubbishing of an idea that actually had broad support.
Unsurprisingly, given its comprehensive roughing up, the concept was dropped after the election. This was a big shame. As former New York Governor Mario Cuomo famously said “you campaign in poetry and govern in prose”. “Big Society” did not work on the campaign trail but would have been a valuable underlying philosophy for the coalition government’s programme.
But did Big Society really perish or was there simply a presentational sleight of hand to focus on the constituent parts rather than the overarching theme?
When you look at what has happened over the last four and a half years, it’s clear that Big Society was dropped in name only. Parents and communities are setting up schools, public sector staff are taking ownership of their services and “spinning out” into mutuals, communities are taking over public assets such as libraries and support has been provided to the third sector to help it bid for and win more public sector contracts. There is also Big Society Capital (formerly the “Big Society Bank” until it was set up and couldn’t technically be called a “bank” – probably for the best!) which provides funding primarily from dormant back accounts to boost social investment. All can be linked very clearly to the original Big Society concept.
For our team at Mutual Ventures, the public service market reform aspects of Big Society were always more tangible than the social action aspects. A key macro benefit of encouraging more third sector organisations to bid for public contracts and encouraging public service staff to take independent ownership of services is a more balanced market place. The public service market has been dominated by in-house public sector delivery and straight out-sourcing to the private sector. The missing element from this is the power of social entrepreneurialism, free from the constraints of the public sector and also from the relentless drive for profit of the private sector. This type of delivery takes the best from the public sector (the ethos and commitment to serving the public) and the private sector (customer focus and commercial discipline) and fits neatly between the two. It shouldn’t be the government’s job (national or local) to skew the market in favour of this type of delivery but it can commission services more wisely to allow a balanced market place to emerge.
I’m quite sure that the term “Big Society” won’t make a comeback as a theme for the 2015 general election campaign although some have tentatively called for its resurrection (Jessie Norman MP and Danny Kruger writing in Acevo’s Blue Book). However, I am equally sure that the constituent parts will feature in the manifestos of the major political parties.