Saving Big Society from its contradictions

The task of translating the rhetoric of Big Society into policy is revealing some fundamental flaws, argues Gabriel Chanan

For a while after the election in May it looked as though the whole idea of big society would be killed off by scorn from the Tory mainstream itself, or simply evaporate in the midst of all the hot air for lack of resources and clear direction. But gradually some shape began to loom out of the mist.

A handful of local authorities were prodded to step forward as ‘exemplars’. A swathe of vulnerable third sector organisations sought refuge in rebranding themselves as Big Society initiatives.

White papers on health and policing gingerly incorporated Big Society phraseology. The Department for Communities and Local Government headlined its whole programme as ‘taking power away from Whitehall and putting it into the hands of people and communities’ – while sweeping away the still youthful mechanisms of local participation and community influence created under Labour.

And in October the Office for Civil Society (OCS) published at last some concrete, albeit minimalist, proposals. They had had to wait for the chancellor’s spending review, and in the event they didn’t do very well out of it.

A settlement of £470m over three years, equivalent to less than 0.2% of the health budget, revealed them being cut proportionally by as much as local authorities, and from a tiny base to start with. Cameron and Osborne missed a major PR trick here: for a handful of small change they could have doubled support for Big Society and claimed they were rebalancing energies between society and government.

In seeking to make out the Big Society policy to be coherent, the OCS papers revealed instead the fundamental fault line: confusion between strengthening communities and getting them to take over public services by acting as social enterprises.

Whether based in a particular community or not (many aren’t), social enterprises are businesses, not groups of volunteers. They need to be paid, and the Big Society policy implicitly accepts this. As contracted deliverers of services they would fulfil public policies and standards, important work but little to do with empowering communities either to do more for themselves or to hold public services to account.

The more that a social enterprise, or any voluntary organisation, takes on a public service, the more dependent it is on the state, and the less representative it is of the community – exactly contrary to the Big Society idea.

This doesn’t mean that bona fide community organisations shouldn’t take on public service contracts. It just means such contracts need to be separate from their authentic community role.

But for the majority of community groups this isn’t an option or an aspiration anyway. Their role is to pursue their own activities, their own objectives, and be answerable to their own members and volunteers. That way they automatically fulfil big society aims.

They do need state support for this, in the form of grants, good quality community development help, and cheap use of community premises, but all these amount to far less than the value of their voluntary input. Their economic value is to take pressure off public services, not shift them from one sector to another. Public service contracts, on the other hand, need full cost recovery – unless they’re underpaid and set up to fail.

So what would it take to redeem Big Society? Five key steps:
•    Double the OCS budget
•    Make community empowerment the leading edge of the policy both in OCS and the big spending departments
•    Separate it from encouraging social enterprises
•    Bring the grants programme for community groups’ own activities up to a level where it can make a national impact
•    Reconcile and properly resource the role of community organisers and community development.

Big Society and public services: complementarity or erosion?, by Gabriel Chanan and Colin Miller, is published by PACES Empowerment and freely downloadable at


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