Is the growth of the 'big society' being stunted? - Guardian Article

As published in the Guardian

The government needs to drive change otherwise the big society could fail, says James Wise from the Social Business Trust

If the government doesn't nurture the infant 'big society' it will surely die. Photograph: Alamy
Parliament's latest review of the 'big society', published last week by a cross-party select committee, offered a range of criticisms and recommendations on what was once the government's flagship policy. The overarching theme from the hundreds of written submissions and oral evidence was how important government action is to the success of this policy, and how much more must be done.

Like the many other broad political ideologies summed up in three words (see The Third Way and Back to Basics), the big society was always going to be open to conflicting interpretation, with politicians amongst the worst offenders. In response to this range of opinion, the report sets out a clear definition of what the civil service should focus on when considering the impact of the policy on their department, with some clear recommendations as to what the government needs to deliver.

The government's work to date has been split along three lines. There is the most common understanding of the big society, increasing voluntary action, with the government aiming to inspire more citizens to give their time and money to voluntary groups. Secondly, there is a push to give citizens more power through direct democracy, whether via elected police commissioners or the ability to vote online for parliamentary debates. Finally, there is the effort to open up the provision of public services to competition from private companies, social enterprises and charities.

Defined like this, it is clear the coalition has a lot more work to do for the policy to be a success. Voluntary groups complain that promising an extra day off work to volunteers would result in a managerial nightmare for them, and the focus should be on support to replace income lost from shrinking government grants. Similarly, the push for greater local democracy has, as Matthew Taylor of the RSA pointed out, lacked consistency from the start, with local elections of police commissioners favoured, but many other services overlooked.

Perhaps the greatest area of concern has been the effort to open up commissioning of public services. While the government has always stressed that this should include charities as well as private companies, in reality the contracts being outsourced by central government have been dominated by large service organisations, which have yet to prove they can work well with smaller, community based groups.

The clearest example of this is the Work Programme, a multi-billion pound employment scheme, where reportedly less than a third of the charities that bid have been engaged. Charities have complained of being treated like "bid candy", used for the contracting process but not subsequently involved, with Acevo, a group representing third sector leaders, claiming that only 9% of charities surveyed felt confident the programme was going to meet its outcomes. This is not the only example, the social enterprise Central Surrey Health were recently claimed to be the "future of the NHS" by one minister for both its positive social impact and quality of service, only for them to subsequently lose tenders to private players.

Worryingly, the response from some commentators is that, given the philosophy behind the big society is a less centralised state, government would be hypocritical to drive change from the centre. The government defended Lord Wei stepping down as minister for the big society because he wanted to get back to work in the community as a social entrepreneur. While these reasons are admirable, there is now a void in the centre of government, where there is still lots of work to be done.

In the private sector, large corporates have realised that if they want to be more integrated with their local community, they have to take an active role. There are plenty of initiatives, such as Deloitte's support for Business in the Community, a fund providing support to community organisations, that show how large organisations can work effectively with small, local groups. If organisations as big as the supermarket chain Morrisons, or the accountancy firm Ernst & Young, can provide support to charities, then government should be able to as well.

The Office of Civil Society have realised that more needs to be done, and are providing funding to the sector through the £20m Social Action Fund and the £100m Transition Fund. If they want to engage smaller civic bodies, then they need to offer more than just funding. A new minster responsible for supporting community groups, and improving commissioning, is needed at the heart of government with the prime minister's full backing. Just like the star chamber, a group of the most senior ministers, forced each department to explain how it was to meet its austerity budget targets, a similarly strong body is needed to ensure departments are improving the way they work with the third sector.

Without actively driving change, the big society will be doomed to failure, becoming at best an interesting experiment in civic engagement, at worst a cover for divisive privatisation of public services and the politicisation of community groups. This would be a tragedy for many charities that are struggling through tough economic times, doing great work across the country, and a wasted opportunity for government to support them.

James Wise is a director of the Social Business Trust, an organisation providing funding and support to social enterprise in the UK, and specialist adviser to the PASC report into the big society