Big Society: the not-very-big briefing

What’s the “Big Society” supposed to be?

The Prime Minister’s vision for the UK is characterised by “Big Society” rather than big government.  He wants to see private individuals and voluntary groups exercise more control over their lives and the environment, particularly at local level, rather than looking to the state for solutions.

What does that mean?

Big Society policies and initiatives tend to reflect the following principles:

1)    Decentralisation: the redistribution of power and control from the central state and its agencies to individuals and local communities.

2)    Transparency and accountability into public spending, with a greater role for the public in making and scrutinising public spending decisions,

3)    Participation: Greater public engagement in volunteering and charitable giving, and a drive to simplify the operating environment for third sector organisations.

4)    Public services: Private and voluntary organisations playing a greater role in public service delivery, though more and better commissioning.

Anything more concrete?

A number of initiatives and policy changes have already been announced as part of Big Society plans.


  • Ring fencing of government grants to local Government will be phased out by October 2010.
  • Directly elected Mayors in the largest 12 cities in England.

Transparency and accountability:

  • A new ‘right to data’ to enable the public to request government-held datasets.
  • Publication of all external spending over £500 by local authorities.


  • A Communities First Fund to help the third sector work with new community groups.
  • A National Citizen Service to encourage more young people to volunteer.
  • A Big Society Bank, funded by dormant bank accounts, to invest in the third sector.
  • In four “vanguard” areas, Liverpool, Eden Valley, Windsor and Maidenhead and Sutton, the government will provide a community organiser and civil servants to support and foster community initiatives.
  • A pledge in the Budget to simplify the Gift Aid system.

Public services:

  • A Localism Bill will give local communities the right to bid to take over state run services.
  • A single “Work Programme” will consolidate existing welfare-to-work services under a single commissioning programme.
  • Health commissioning will be localised through oversight by GP cooperatives.

Who’s in charge of all this?

The Government has established a Big Society ministerial group with Francis Maude MP and Eric Pickles MP as co-Chairs, including representatives from every department. The Office for Civil Society (formerly the Office for the Third Sector) will lead on programmes that involve the third sector.

The key personnel within Government focused on Big Society work are:

Cabinet Office:

  • Francis Maude MP
  • Oliver Letwin MP
  • Nick Hurd MP, Minister for Civil Society

Department for Communities

  • Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State
  • Greg Clark MP, Decentralisation Minister

Other advisors and influencers:

  • Nicholas Boles MP, former director of Policy Exchange
  • Lord (Nat) Wei, founder of Teach First
  • Phillipa Stroud (DWP), former director of the Centre for Social Justice

Meanwhile, the Government has invited parliament to create a Select Committee for Civil Society this autumn, and a Big Society Network has been set up by Martyn Rose and Paul Twivy.

What are the risks?

Many experienced leaders and commentators in (and around) the third sector remain unconvinced that the Big Society agenda is meaningful enough to make a difference, given the massive cuts in public spending, and the shortage of information about how Big Society will work in practice.

“The mantra of ‘doing more with less’ will be carved on the doorway of more and more voluntary groups. In these circumstances it is increasingly important that we hear more about the big society from the government than pious rhetoric and the gnomic utterances of Lord Wei.” Stephen Cook, Editor Third Sector

In particular, sector leaders are concerned that the contraction in public spending (including a 25% reduction in spending by most government departments) will effectively wipe out the small grants and public service contracts on which many third sector organisations have depended for income. Meanwhile, donations are also falling, and the VAT increase next year will cost the sector an extra £150m per year.

“Small scale community activity is fundamentally important to civil society. It depends on small grants, and if these are wiped out this will remove the very support structures that community groups depend on and undermine the big society,” Sir Stuart Etherington, CEO, NCVO,

“The credibility of the Big Society is significantly undermined by the impact of economic policy on charities and voluntary groups, as announcements of cuts to funding emerge on an almost daily basis.” Toby Blume, CEO, UrbanForum

The Big Society philosophy includes an assumption that local commissioners will be likely to become “smart and strategic” as they seek to find more efficient ways of delivering local services, and that this will lead them to develop relationships with citizens, charities and social enterprises who are able to provide ideas and input. No doubt the best will try, but others are likely to retrench and cost-cut, awarding any remaining contracts to the cheapest bidder as a matter of necessity. There will be little spare time or resource to invest in developing the capacity of local organisations and people to take over services.

As Nick Hurd recognises, “There is clearly a significant risk to the Big Society agenda,” and will be telling other ministers to “think about the impact on the local and voluntary sector” and “make sure the state minimises the damage.” In this context, the third sector will be looking to cut costs and limit fallout, rather than recognising any great opportunity for expansion.

Given the Government’s public commitment to decentralisation of power, many Big Society initiatives involve highly centralised commissioning. For instance, the Government intends to establish a National Citizen Service, rather than simply supporting the best existing volunteering organisations to work with young people. David Cameron has also announced that future income from the Futurebuilders Fund, which was independently managed and invested in service-providing organisations, will be rerouted to train a “Neighbourhood army” of 5,000 full-time, professional community organisers.

“Listen to the sector, Government, and you may get it right. Pursue your own schemes and you may not. You may have thought up these great ideas while in opposition but you are now in Government. You need to test them against the knowledge and wisdom of our great sector. And you need to ensure effective funding.” Stephen Bubb, CEO, acevo and Chair, Social Investment Business

The Big Society meets with a sceptical response from groups to the right of centre, who regard it as a risky dalliance with left-wing principles and activities. In March, the TaxPayers’ Alliance warned of the Conservatives’ plans to “flood local politics with thousands of taxpayer funded radical activists”. Some Conservative voices are also sceptical about the value of third sector projects, which encompass “politically correct training to council staff, public arts projects for which there is little demand or – worst of all – lobbying and campaigning at taxpayers’ expense.”

The Government will no doubt face pressure from the right to abandon the Big Society project as an unaffordable vanity. Those on the front line, however, will argue that robust initiatives to support local communities will be essential as public expenditure dramatically falls.

For more information:

Cabinet Office Paper: Building the Big Society

NCVO’s Big Society Hub

Insight PA’s Big Society Briefing

David Cameron’s Hugo Young Memorial Lecture, November 2009

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