The Prime Minister has placed the Big Society project at the centre of his political agenda, and in turn, it occupies a central place in the Coalition Agreement. Translated into policies, the term describes the Government's intention to open up public services to new providers, increase social action and devolve power to local communities. Many welcome these objectives. Our inquiry has focused on the commitment to commission a greater proportion of public services from the charitable sector, drawing on the immense resources of skill, knowledge and innovation to be found in charities and community groups.
This report examines what the Big Society project means for Whitehall and whether the implementation of this policy is on track to succeed. The Government faces the challenge to produce more coherent plans for achieving the Big Society project, and to communicate the policy agenda more effectively. Whilst there have been some criticisms of progress, the Open Public Services White Paper sets an overall deadline of April 2012 for departments to publish regular progress reports setting out the steps that have been taken to open public services. This will follow a period of consultation over the summer and autumn of 2011.
There is little clear understanding of the Big Society project among the public, and there is confusion over the Government's proposals to reform public services. In particular, the ambition to open up public services to new providers has prompted concerns about the role of private companies which have not thus far been adequately addressed by Ministers. We have recommended greater clarity on the roles of charitable, private and public providers of public services. We also press the Government to outline how crucial issues of accountability in terms of quality and regulatory powers will be managed in the Big Society project, and in particular accountability for public expenditure.
There is also uncertainty about how many charities in general, and small and local community groups in particular, are willing and able to deliver public services. Serious concerns about the wider financial health of the charitable sector have prompted several such groups to warn that the Big Society project is being undermined by reductions in grant funding by local authorities. However, this is partly because the Big Society message is not always communicated in simple language. Some groups now see this issue in terms of how much money they will receive in public grants. At the same time, some charities are keen to take a greater role in delivering public services, and are likely to experience significant barriers to progress unless the culture and skills of the departments commissioning such services change.
We therefore propose a number of steps to change the way the Civil Service and local authorities commission and manage contracts for public services. We caution that unless these steps are taken, the Big Society policy agenda will not achieve what the Government intends.