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".
A further historical context can be found in the 'little platoons'
described by Edmund Burke in his 'Reflections on the Revolution
in France' (1790):
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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
Putnam defined social capital as "the fabric of [...] community
life". He lamented
its decline in the USA, and the development of what he called:
"a widespread tendency toward passive reliance on the state."
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.
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".
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 projectand 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.
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.
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"..
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
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.
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. Our inquiry
has focused on the role of Whitehall in the development of this
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".
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
the Government "needs to change how it operates to actively
support such a society".
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."
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.
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
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
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;
b) changing the commissioning system to open
up public services to a more diverse range of providers;
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
A coherent policy agenda across
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,,
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.
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.'"
The result was that Big Society policies across government did
not "marry with each other".
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.
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".
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".
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".
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".
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.
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.
It was thus both "too abstract and too granular".
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 movementit is an antipolitics
movement; it is saying that central Government is not the answernevertheless
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.
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,
Our subsequent report, 'Change in Government:
the agenda for leadership' argued that this leadership was
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.
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
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.
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.
26. While, as Danny Kruger told us, "it is very
difficult to communicate new thinking",
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.
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".
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. 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'?"
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".
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".
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".
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
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.
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. 
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."
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.
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".
However, Greg Clark MP, the Minister for Decentralisation and
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.
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".
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
On the evidence before us, we must disagree.
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 policieshowever, 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
"Bruce Anderson: Cameron's 'little platoons' get stuck in
the woods" The Financial Times, 10 February 2011,
p 11 Back
Burke, E. Reflections on the Revolution in France Text
accessed at www.constitution.org Back
'What is a co-operative?' Co-operatives UK : www.uk.coop
Co-operatives UK, The Formula for Co-operation, (Manchester:
2010), p. 3 Back
Q 32 [Lord Glasman] Back
Robert Putnam, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social
Capital", Journal of Democracy 6:1, Jan 1995,
p 65-78 Back
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
Robert Putnam "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social
Capital", Journal of Democracy 6:1, Jan 1995,
p 65 Back
"Big Society: be careful what you wish for Mr Cameron",
Whitehall Watch,13 February 2011, whitehallwatch.org
Amitai Etzioni, Rights and the Common Good: The Communitarian
Perspective (New York: 1995), p 16 Back
'David Cameron: Putting Britain back on her feet' The Conservative
Party website, 8 October 2009, www.conservatives.com Back
'David Cameron: Big society can fight poverty. Big government
just fuels it' The Guardian 11 November 2009 p. 30. Back
DCLG, Decentralisation and the Localism Bill: An essential
guide, December 2010, p 2 Back
"Prime Minister's Big Society speech" 19 July 2010 Number10.gov.uk Back
Cabinet Office, Giving White Paper, Cm 8084, May 2011 Back
Cabinet Office, Open Public Services White Paper, Cm 8145,
July 2011 Back
Q 520 Back
Ev 118 Back
Ev 119 Back
FVS Q 128 Back
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
Ev w232 Back
Q 152 Back
Q 152, 153 Back
Q 153 Back
Q 520 Back
Q 155 Back
Q 155 Back
Q 183 Back
Q 183 Back
Q 170 Back
Q 530 Back
FVS Q 124 Back
Ev 125 Back
"David Cameron starts all over again on public services reform"
Benedict Brogan's Blog, blogs.telegraph.co.uk, 7 December
Q 27 Back
Q 30 Back
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
Public Administration Select Committee, Thirteenth Report of Session
2010-12, Change in Government: the agenda for leadership, HC 714,
para 109 Back
Ibid. para 37 Back
"Phillip Blond: Dave must take the Red Tory turn" New
Statesman 2 October 2011 Back
Q 317 Back
Q 27 Back
Q 28 Back
The Commission on the Big Society, Powerful People, Responsible
Society, (London, 2011) p 10 Back
"Are the wheels coming off the PM's Big Idea?" The
Independent on Sunday, 15 May 2011, p 12-13 Back
Ev w130 Back
Ev w198 Back
Ev w232 Back
Ev w113 Back
Q 158 Back
"PM's Big Society Tsar steps down" BBC News 24
May 2011 www.bbc.co.uk/news Back
Q 573 Back
Ev 108 Back
Q 443 Back
Ev w5 Back
Q 553 Back
Q 548 Back
Q 549 [Nick Hurd] Back