The Big Society - Public Administration Committee Contents

2  The Big Society project and Whitehall

The roots of the Big Society

6. The Big Society is not a 'new concept', and considering the roots of the ideas associated with the term can help to understand how it translates into a policy agenda for Government.

7. The Big Society project has been linked with the ideas central to major religions, with the Bishop of Leicester suggesting it has "resonances with a vision for society that is profoundly Christian".[5] A further historical context can be found in the 'little platoons' described by Edmund Burke in his 'Reflections on the Revolution in France' (1790)[6]:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.[7]

8. The commitment to open up public services to mutuals and co-operatives links the Big Society project to the co-operative movement, first established in Rochdale in 1844, which now includes nearly 5,000 businesses in the UK.[8] Co-operatives UK believe that "what makes the co-operative approach important is that it's a way of doing things that makes it possible to harness the drive human beings have to achieve their goals by acting together."[9]

9. Lord Glasman, Adviser to the Leader of the Opposition on Civil Society, linked the Big Society project to social action in alienated communities in 1930s Chicago:

basically, it started off in Chicago in the 1930s with a guy called Saul Alinsky.  The idea was that poor, local, demoralised communities would generate power, build relationships, and be able to act in Mayor Daley's Chicago, where they were completely cut out [...] community organising is based on building relationships, action and power: giving local communities power through their own leadership and setting their own agenda.[10

10. The Big Society project also has roots in the theory of social capital, most notably espoused by the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, whose seminal 1995 essay 'Bowling Alone' identified a reduction in the number of Americans taking part in communal activities, causing a decline in social interaction and civic engagement.[11] Putnam defined social capital as "the fabric of [...] community life".[12] He lamented its decline in the USA, and the development of what he called: "a widespread tendency toward passive reliance on the state."[13] The Big Society project can also be traced back to the work of the George Washington University sociologist Amitai Etzioni, who founded the Communitarian Network in 1990.[14] Communitarians believe that "generally no social task should be assigned to an institution that is larger than necessary to do the job [...] But to remove tasks to higher levels than is necessary weakens the constituent communities".[15] It is important to note that advocates of the Big Society project say it is not just about community. It is also about social capital, people power, and social entrepreneurs.

11. The Prime Minister first outlined his theory of the Big Society project—and why it was his answer to a 'broken society'—as Leader of the Opposition. In his speech to the Conservative Party Conference in October 2009, he stated:

So no, we are not going to solve our problems with bigger government. We are going to solve our problems with a stronger society. Stronger families. Stronger communities. A stronger country. All by rebuilding responsibility.[16]

Further details emerged in Mr Cameron's Hugo Young lecture in November 2009, when he called for 'state action' to make the Big Society project a reality:

Our alternative to big government is not no government - some reheated version of ideological laissez-faire. Our alternative to big government is the big society. But the big society is not just going to spring to life on its own: we need strong and concerted government action to make it happen. We need to use the state to remake society.[17]

12. The Big Society is not a new concept. It builds on a wealth of traditions and ideas about strengthening communities, civic action and co-ownership of public services.

The role of Government in enabling the Big Society

13. The 'strong and concerted government action' has translated into three Big Society policy areas, as set out in government policy documents. First, the Government has said that the Big Society project means empowering communities through decentralisation and localism, by giving local councils and neighbourhoods more power to take decisions and shape their area. This devolution of power has been described as the "biggest thing that government can do to build the Big Society".[18]. It is claimed that it will amount to what the Prime Minister has described as the "the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street".[19]

14. The second policy area is the Government's commitment to encouraging social action. This is to be achieved by specific policies encouraging volunteering and charitable donations, but is also expected to increase as power is devolved to communities and members of the public become motivated by what they can achieve in their local area and increase donations of time and money.[20]

15. The third policy area is the opening up of public services, by enabling charities, social enterprises, private companies and employee-owned cooperatives to compete to offer high quality services. Ministers believe that providing the public with more control over the services they use and opening such services to a wide range of providers will lead to better services for all users.[21] Our inquiry has focused on the role of Whitehall in the development of this policy area.

16. We have noted some inconsistency in views of the Government's role in enabling the Big Society project. Francis Maude, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, said that although there is a "huge amount" for Government to do, the "Big Society, by definition, is mostly not about what Government does; it is about what people, organisations and communities do in society".[22] In his written evidence the Minister stated that, although the Big Society project could not be built "through the old top down approach to government, which tried to control too much from Whitehall",[23] the Government "needs to change how it operates to actively support such a society".[24] Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, also insisted that the Government has an "extremely big role to play ... this isn't a case of ... just stepping back and expecting thousands of flowers to bloom."[25]

17. Our witnesses agreed that the Government must play a significant role if it wants to achieve its objectives. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) stated "the role of the state is not simply to cut red tape, or to 'get out of the way'" but to enable the Big Society.[26] Voluntary Sector North West concurred, arguing that while not a top-down government programme, the Big Society project is "a Government-led agenda" with taxpayer money invested in delivering policy objectives.[27]

18. The role of Government was more specifically defined by Gareth Davies, Head of the Office of Civil Society in the Cabinet Office, who detailed three distinct responsibilities for Whitehall:

a)  making "the one-off reforms that Whitehall needs to make, effectively giving up the power it used to have" such as these in the Academies Act 2010 and the Localism Act 2011;[28]

b)  changing the commissioning system to open up public services to a more diverse range of providers;[29] and

c)  "the mobilisation and incubation of new ideas. Rather than taking power and solving problems ourselves in the centre, it is about how we can help others, be they individuals or businesses, to solve their own problems; it is about promoting social action."[30]

A coherent policy agenda across Government?

19. We have received little evidence to suggest that there is a coherent Big Society policy agenda which is understood by Whitehall. Though the Minister responsible, Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, told us that he was "always slightly puzzled" by people asking what the Big Society project means "because it seems reasonably obvious" to him,[31], Matthew Taylor, a former policy adviser to Tony Blair as Prime Minister, suggested that even officials and Ministers "have lacked clarity as to what the concept is about and have not told us how we would know it was happening." This would hinder the work of civil servants in achieving the Government's objectives.[32] Mr Taylor further told us that there was "no adamantine centre to [the Big Society project] that you could take from department to department and say, 'this is what it means for you.'"[33] The result was that Big Society policies across government did not "marry with each other".[34] He continued:

to take an example, in the police reforms the account seems to be, 'we need to challenge professionals,' whereas in the health service the account seems to be, 'we need to give all the power to professionals.' In the schools system it is, 'let's give the power to the parents', but actually it will probably be giving power to head teachers. I think that civil servants are at a loss. They know that the old days have gone, and in some ways they welcome that; they understand the madness of too many targets and interventions, but what they do not understand is the driving logic of what they are trying to do now.[35]

Andrew Haldenby, Director of the think-tank Reform, concurred: "it is very difficult to see a convincing case for the Big Society when the picture is very contradictory".[36]

20. The existence of different views of the Big Society project across Government was not, however, viewed as a problem by the Minister for the Cabinet Office: as the Government is made up of seventeen "separate entities" [the principal Government Departments] "of course there is going to be inconsistency across the piece".[37] There is no lead minister to drive the Big Society project through Government. Instead Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, spoke of a "Big Society inter-ministerial group, with 14 or 15 people sitting around the table".[38] There is also a legitimate concern over the several ambassadors and official representatives of the Big Society project: a problem of 'too many cooks'.

21. The Open Public Services White Paper, published in July 2011, does not address the diversity of opinion about the Big Society project, nor does it set out a plan for implementation. The National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (NAVCA) told us that it "contains far fewer practical proposals than we would expect from a White Paper".[39] This is partly because the White Paper is intended to be a consultation paper. The White Paper does set out a requirement for Departmental reporting on implementation of Big Society policies to begin in April 2012, although recent press reports suggest a possible delay in the Government's response to the consultation responses.[40] Danny Kruger, chief executive of the charity Only Connect, recognised a challenge, in that the Big Society project was "not at the sort of scale that we normally talk at in political terms, like NHS, or schools or whatever", combining both philosophical ideas and very local issues.[41] It was thus both "too abstract and too granular".[42] However, he said:

David Cameron has recovered his courage on it and is promoting it very vigorously.  I do think that, although it is essentially a bottom-up movement—it is an anti­politics movement; it is saying that central Government is not the answer—nevertheless there is a role for the state as the leader of our country and as a cultural promoter of the good and the true and the just, and that is what the Prime Minister should be doing, and I think he does. I think he speaks very bravely.[43]

22. As part of our inquiry into Civil Service reform earlier this year, we wrote to all Permanent Secretaries to ask for details of how the Big Society project would affect their departments. In his analysis of the responses, Professor Andrew Kakabadse of Cranfield University, our specialist adviser to that inquiry, stressed the importance of strong leadership of the Big Society project from the Cabinet Office and the Treasury, stating:

there is no point in placing extensive demands on the delivery Departments of Whitehall, asking them to reconcile the 'Big Society' agenda with extensive cost reduction requirements, without then being able to provide reasonable oversight, namely, governance.[44]

Our subsequent report, 'Change in Government: the agenda for leadership' argued that this leadership was lacking, concluding:

A cultural change to accept new ideas, innovation, decentralisation, localism and the Big Society, necessary if these flagship government policies are to succeed, will only come with leadership and a clear plan.[45]

In addition, we concluded that there was "little evidence of the detail of the specific changes which will be required in terms of roles, structure, accountability and training [in Whitehall]. We believe this is one reason why the Government's decentralisation and Big Society policies are perceived to be failing".[46]

23. Towards the end of this inquiry, we have found that even prominent supporters and architects of the Big Society project, such as Phillip Blond, Director of the think-tank ResPublica, have apparently become sceptical about whether a coherent and coordinated Big Society project can be implemented. In October 2011 Mr Blond wrote:

The tragedy is that the government has adopted a laissez-faire approach to the delivery of the big society. It has claimed that if the state stepped back, and social enterprise was incentivised (not least by the "Big Society Bank"), then the civic sector would grow itself - and there is no doubt that, in some parts, that will be true. But there is no civic infrastructure on which to base this innovation. It required a retail offering - every town or village or locality should have had its own big society platform where people could go for advice and input, and where the new powers in the Localism Bill could be explained and augmented with civic expertise, training in social entrepreneurship and the delivery of public service. With these ideas cut off by the spending cuts and sidelined by the Treasury as a prime ministerial distraction, the battle for the big society has probably already, needlessly, been lost.[47]

24. The redistribution of power from Whitehall to communities, central to the Big Society project, will by its very nature necessitate a substantial change to Whitehall itself, and to the nature of government. Our evidence prior to the publication of the Open Public Services White Paper suggested that some witnesses remain concerned that there is not sufficient coherence in the Government's plans to achieve the objectives of the Big Society project. We await the publication of the results of the consultation following the Open Public Services White Paper and hope to see detailed implementation plans and coherent proposals in place before April 2012. As we recommended in 'Change in Government: the agenda for leadership' the Government must produce a comprehensive and coherent change programme. Without this, attempts to bring about change will be defeated by inertia.

Communicating the Big Society

25. Ministers have the responsibility of explaining the Big Society project not only to departments, but also to the general public. This is critical to the success of the project. Bernie Morgan, former Chief Executive of the Community Development Finance Association, stressed that there is a "real role [for government] to play in selling the idea and creating a policy framework" in social finance, which is just one area of the Big Society project.[48]

26. While, as Danny Kruger told us, "it is very difficult to communicate new thinking"[49], polling results suggest that the public do not have a clear understanding of the Big Society project or the associated policy agenda. However, Mr Kruger also said:

As to the idea that he has re­launched it four times, as we all know it takes 100 times before these things enter the public mind.  [David Cameron] is going to re­launch and re­launch it.  It is more about whether it will work; whether stuff happens on the ground.  I think this goes with the grain of human nature, this is what people want, and the polls show that people do not understand it.  I think they do understand it; they just do not like it coming from politicians.  They do not like the sense of it being a top-down agenda.[50]

A YouGov poll carried out for the Commission on the Big Society in April 2011 found that 78% of the public "believe the Government has failed to give people a clear idea of what the big society is about".[51] In May 2011, the Independent on Sunday published ComRes polling data suggesting that understanding of the Big Society concept was actually declining, with 40% of people stating "they could not grasp the concept, compared with 30 per cent in February 2011.[52] Ipsos MORI cited the response of a participant in their research studies: "they tried to explain but it's too complicated. It's very vague. What do they mean, 'the big society'?"[53] The Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age has warned that the "Big Society is in danger of becoming all things, and no things, to all people".[54] Voluntary Sector North West complained that not only did the Big Society definition vary depending on the context, but that it "often seems to be a rhetorical vehicle to justify other (sometimes politically) predetermined aims".[55]

27. The community organising group, Locality, decried what they saw as a "year zero" approach from Government, which, they claimed, viewed the Big Society project as starting at the 2010 General Election, an attitude which they believed "betrays, at best, an extraordinary naivety".[56] Matthew Taylor concurred that this had been a major flaw in the communication of the Big Society project to the public:

Ministers talked about the Big Society as if it was something that would be created in the twinkling of an eye. One simply had to withdraw public services and civil society would flourish.[57]

28. The resignation of the Government's Big Society adviser Lord Wei of Shoreditch from his formal post in May 2011 prompted further press criticism of the policy agenda, and potentially contributed to communication difficulties.[58] A successor as adviser to the Government has not been appointed. Francis Maude rejected criticism of Lord Wei's decision, stating:

Let me deal with that specific thing about Lord Wei when you say he has deserted the Big Society. He is actually doing it [the Big Society]. As a social entrepreneur he is creating social capital and social action, and driving new organisations to fulfil social missions. [59]

29. The lack of understanding of the Big Society project should be seen in the wider context of public perceptions of the change envisaged in the delivery of public services and the devolution of power. The TUC cited research from the Institute for Public Policy Research and PwC which found that there was a degree of appetite among the public for a greater say in public services, but "people nevertheless believe that the state should remain primarily responsible for delivering most public services."[60] In his oral evidence, Paul Nowak of TUC told us:

the evidence from the public is that that is not what they want at all. They are worried about stretched public finances being lost in shareholder dividends; they are worried about accountability, because accountability to shareholders is not the same as accountability to local communities; and they are worried about service quality.[61]

The trade union UNISON argued that the Government's commitment to opening up public services was "based on an underlying principle of reducing state provision of public services".[62] However, Greg Clark MP, the Minister for Decentralisation and Cities said:

It is not simply talking about it but doing it, so that local authorities for the first time have a general power of competence so that they can initiate action. They do not just have to do what central Government tells them to do but can make decisions in the interest of their own communities. If you look at some of the rights, they include the right for voluntary organisations to challenge the way things are done and the right to bid to take over assets. These are practical measures that have been the subject of great debate and in many cases have formed significant consensus in this House and the other place. So at the same time as the debate on terms has been taking place, there has been substantial progress quite early in the day.[63]

30. The Minister for the Cabinet Office did not share the concerns raised with us on public understanding and support for the Big Society project, remarking that he was "completely relaxed" that the Big Society "means different things for different people, and different things will have salience".[64] The Minister for Civil Society did not recognise the problem, arguing that "people fundamentally understand it [the Big Society]. I think that national consciousness is one thing we have achieved."[65] On the evidence before us, we must disagree.

31. Without a coherent plan, the Government has so far been unable to communicate effectively to the public what the Big Society project means in terms of practical policies—however, we await their Departmental plans to be published in advance of April 2012. If they fail to do so, they will not secure sufficient public understanding support for the commitment to open public services. For the Big Society project to be successful, Ministers must increase public understanding of the nature and purpose of their public sector reform agenda by setting out what it means in practical terms.

5   Q 349 Back

6   "Bruce Anderson: Cameron's 'little platoons' get stuck in the woods" The Financial Times, 10 February 2011, p 11 Back

7   Burke, E. Reflections on the Revolution in France Text accessed at  Back

8   'What is a co-operative?' Co-operatives UK :  Back

9   Co-operatives UK, The Formula for Co-operation, (Manchester: 2010), p. 3 Back

10   Q 32 [Lord Glasman] Back

11   Robert Putnam, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital", Journal of Democracy 6:1, Jan 1995, p 65-78 Back

12   Robert Putnam, "Tuning In, Tuning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital in America", PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 28, No. 4, Dec 1995, p 667 Back

13   Robert Putnam "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital", Journal of Democracy 6:1, Jan 1995, p 65 Back

14   "Big Society: be careful what you wish for Mr Cameron", Whitehall Watch,13 February 2011,  Back

15   Amitai Etzioni, Rights and the Common Good: The Communitarian Perspective (New York: 1995), p 16 Back

16   'David Cameron: Putting Britain back on her feet' The Conservative Party website, 8 October 2009,  Back

17   'David Cameron: Big society can fight poverty. Big government just fuels it' The Guardian 11 November 2009 p. 30. Back

18   DCLG, Decentralisation and the Localism Bill: An essential guide, December 2010, p 2 Back

19   "Prime Minister's Big Society speech" 19 July 2010 Back

20   Cabinet Office, Giving White Paper, Cm 8084, May 2011  Back

21   Cabinet Office, Open Public Services White Paper, Cm 8145, July 2011 Back

22   Q 520 Back

23   Ev 118 Back

24   Ev 119 Back

25   FVS Q 128 Back

26   Ev w248 [Note:references to 'Ev wXX' are references to written evidence published in the volume of additional written evidence published on the Committee's website.] Back

27   Ev w232 Back

28   Q 152 Back

29   Q 152, 153 Back

30   Q 153 Back

31   Q 520 Back

32   Q 155 Back

33   Q 155 Back

34   Q 183 Back

35   Q 183 Back

36   Q 170 Back

37   Q 530 Back

38   FVS Q 124 Back

39   Ev 125 Back

40   "David Cameron starts all over again on public services reform" Benedict Brogan's Blog,, 7 December 2011 Back

41   Q 27 Back

42   Ibid. Back

43   Q 30 Back

44   Public Administration Select Committee, Eleventh Report of Session 2010-12, Good Governance and Civil Service Reform: 'End of Term' report on Whitehall plans structural reform, Change in Government: the agenda for leadership, HC 714, Appendix 2, p 8 Back

45   Public Administration Select Committee, Thirteenth Report of Session 2010-12, Change in Government: the agenda for leadership, HC 714, para 109 Back

46   Ibid. para 37 Back

47   "Phillip Blond: Dave must take the Red Tory turn" New Statesman 2 October 2011 Back

48   Q 317 Back

49   Q 27 Back

50   Q 28 Back

51   The Commission on the Big Society, Powerful People, Responsible Society, (London, 2011) p 10 Back

52   "Are the wheels coming off the PM's Big Idea?" The Independent on Sunday, 15 May 2011, p 12-13 Back

53   Ev w130 Back

54   Ev w198 Back

55   Ev w232 Back

56   Ev w113 Back

57   Q 158 Back

58   "PM's Big Society Tsar steps down" BBC News 24 May 2011 Back

59   Q 573 Back

60   Ev 108 Back

61   Q 443 Back

62   Ev w5 Back

63   Q 553 Back

64   Q 548 Back

65   Q 549 [Nick Hurd] Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 14 December 2011