Acevo’s Big Society Commission: what hope for the Big Society?

The acevo Commission on the “Big Society”, to which I gave evidence earlier this year, published its report this morning, calling for a clearer definition of the concept, greater understanding across the “Whitehall machine”, and a stronger delivery partnership with the voluntary sector.

I have joked that (like the Holy Trinity) if the Big Society has been explained so you understand it, it hasn’t been explained properly. In fact the concept is simple: increasing people’s willingness and ability to tackle social problems themselves, rather than looking to the state for professional interventions that at best have become less affordable, and at worst were (for those with complex needs) sometimes disempowering and counterproductive.

Of course, question marks remain over the Government’s ability to distinguish between good and bad interventions: witness the “axe first, ask questions later” approach to the Future Jobs Fund, and the “year zero” quality of initiatives such as the National Citizen Service, with simple, eye-catching methodologies previously rejected by experts as ineffective. This partly accounts for the lukewarm response from the voluntary sector to the Big Society agenda, with charities credibly claiming precedence and superior expertise in engaging the population in tackling social problems, and failing to see much new or exciting in Government policy.

Local Government spokespeople (including Cllr Richard Kemp at the acevo launch today), argue that it is self-contradictory for central Government to define the Big Society agenda, given its focus on localism. This objection involves a category mistake, seeing Big Society as an immediate metholodogy for policy implementation, rather than a (somewhat distant) end-point that may eventually be created by the collaboration of government and intermediary organizations to enable and empower citizens.

It should be clear that “the voluntary sector” as a whole is not necessarily a natural partner for the government in this agenda. While many organizations focus on helping individuals to take greater control of their own lives and local social problems, many others (medical charities for example) will place greater emphasis on maintaining state-funded professional interventions from a limited budget. To the extent that these interventions come under financial pressure from the Government, many campaigning charities will – in fighting their beneficiaries’ corners – become enemies of (or at least obstacles to) state policy. This is, after all, their job.

Creating the Big Society is fundamentally a problem of education, social psychology and asset distribution. It will succeed in so far as people understand social problems, embrace them as their own, and are able to harness the resources and expertise needed to tackle them. In short, will the UK’s most capable people help those less fortunate, in particular by enabling them to help themselves?

The trend of increasing social inequality points to financial resources, at least, becoming more concentrated in the hands of fewer people. This does not necessarily augur well for philanthropy or volunteering, or the Big Society agenda. I recall an account director from a private bank telling me her clients do not feel they can afford to give to charity until they have at least £3m in cash in the bank – roughly 100 times the average gross UK salary. Perhaps high profile philanthropic initiatives such as the “Giving Pledge” will spawn a shift in attitudes, but there is (as yet) scant evidence of this among the UK’s richest.

In reality, with some spectacular exceptions, the wealthy are less compassionate and less inclined to give than the general population, needing extensive “priming” through exposure to social problems before they become willing to help. And yet wealthy people naturally invest large sums in avoiding such exposure, whether through gated communities or private schooling. The middle classes can achieve something of these benefits by moving to the leafy suburbs, or finding religion before sending their children to school.

The celebrated Schelling models show that only weak preferences for people to live amongst “their own sort” can lead over time to almost complete segregation. In the UK the incentives for moving to more affluent areas are strong, and will become stronger as funding for state support declines. Meanwhile changes to housing benefit rates will make it harder for less well-off people to live in those  areas, creating a less mixed society in which social problems are more neatly cordoned off (or more prevalent, depending on where you are sitting).

People with no degree are half as likely to volunteer as graduates[i]. The latter may be better placed, as well as more willing, to embody the Big Society ideals by taking the initiative to analyse and address the problems they see. Yet David Willett’s much-maligned speech on social mobility in higher education [now expunged from online history] credibly identified broad socio-economic trends (the concentration of wealth in housing, rather than pensions; the creation of greater opportunities for affluent women) that have meant increased university places have not increased access for the least well-off. The new “graduate contribution” of up to £9,000 per year may further discourage poorer people from taking up these places, further reducing the kind of cross-pollination between people of diverse backgrounds on which the Big Society depends.

In general, powerful socio-economic forces at micro and macro level may make it less likely that citizens will take on the social problems that the Big Society agenda is designed to address. The value traditionally placed on aspiration and wealth-creation by Conservatives make many of these forces unlikely targets for the Government. Many voluntary organizations have railed against them, highlighting unacceptable social deprivation, and (through fundraising and volunteering) engaging resource-rich people to help tackle it. While state funding for such voluntary activity declines, will the growth of “Big Society thinking” among citizens themselves be an adequate substitute?

Update on 17 May:

Corrected a few typos, ambiguities, and poorly expressed thoughts from the original post.


[i] DCLG Citizenship Survey 2009, quoted in acevo Commission on Big Society report 2011.

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One Response to Acevo’s Big Society Commission: what hope for the Big Society?

  1. Pingback: Platform 10 » Blog Archive » The ‘Big Society’ is dead, long live big society

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