Smaller Government: Bigger Society?

Written evidence submitted by Eileen Conn (BS 110)

1. Some commentary on the Big Society has drawn attention to the way that the voluntary sector and the community sector are wrongly taken as one entity. My comments are confined to this aspect and the implications for effective functioning of community engagement and therefore for the achievement of the Big Society.

· This issue is not something created by the new Big Society policy. It has a deeper systemic cause. The same problems have been experienced for many years. Some aspects of the Big Society policy will reinforce the difficulties, and others will have potential to solve some of the problems.

The Problem

· There is often a readiness to recognise that there are differences between the voluntary sector and the community sector. However in practise this is rarely reflected in the way policies and programmes are developed and implemented. This seems to be because little attention is in reality given to the differences. This may be because there is little understanding of what the differences are, why the sectors are different and the implications that has for how they function.

· My theoretical model, the Social Eco-System Dance, helps to examine and explain the differences and to help develop a more effective and relevant approach to them. [1] The model is a way of looking at how the organised and structured institutions of society (the vertical hierarchical) interact with citizens’ fluid informal groups and networks (the horizontal peer).

Key differences

· The organisational systems and structures found in the vertical and horizontal sub-systems reflect the different human relationships which are integral to those sub-systems:

o the vertical hierarchical - where there are ordered authority hierarchies, with structured power and rule based instrumental relationships, in the world of organised activity – public, commercial and ‘voluntary’* worlds; (‘voluntary’ in this context includes charities, non-profits, NGOs, social enterprises).

o the horizontal peer - where relationships are based on free and voluntary association, often referred to as the ‘community’ – in neighbourhoods or mutual interest groups, networks and ad hoc associations.

· These innate and natural differences have given rise to significantly different organisational and systems’ structures and behaviours relating to collective endeavour in the two different worlds. The voluntary sector is primarily a vertical hierarchical sub-system, and the community sector is primarily a horizontal peer sub-system. The vertical is focussed on the structured delivery of outcomes, policies, programmes, and services. The horizontal is focussed on mutual interests arising from personal life and death matters. These differences raise distinct organisational challenges and needs for governance arrangements. [2] These have to be understood and acknowledged, and appropriate provision made for their governance.

· Most of the horizontal peer activity is ‘below the radar’ as its nature does not fit into the standard preconceptions for data collection and research systems geared as they are to the vertical hierarchical way of being and organising. The estimates are that roughly about 70% of the combined voluntary and community sectors would be ‘below the radar’. [3]

2. How does this analysis relate to the Issues and Questions the Committee is addressing? Here are some brief initial thoughts about this:

1. A definition of what the ‘Big Society’ is or should be.

The Big Society can be viewed as the overall system encompassing all social sub-systems, including those referred to as vertical hierarchical and horizontal peer. There is an implied assumption that the Big Society provides a context for all the sub-systems to work interactively with each other in a constructive and complementary way. But there is not adequate recognition that this requires attention with appropriate policies to encourage it.

2. The impact and consequences of reductions in public expenditure on the Government’s ambitions to deliver its vision for the Big Society.

Where local voluntary sector support arrangements are lost because of the cuts on local government expenditure, this will weaken the local capacity for strengthening the horizontal peer system in neighbourhoods. As these are the roots of civic engagement this is likely to have a constraining effect on achieving the Big Society.

3. The role of and capacity for the voluntary and community sector to deliver local public services including the appropriateness of using charitable income or volunteer labour to subsidise costs.

4. Possible problems and challenges from increased commissioning of public service provision from the voluntary and community sector as envisaged by the Government.

These are useful examples of what happens when the voluntary and community sectors are seen as one. No attention is given to the inappropriateness of the horizontal peer being considered suitable for delivery of public services. It is appropriate only to the vertical hierarchical system. A local organisation which does take up this kind of role will by definition become part of the vertical hierarchical world. This may sometimes be appropriate as new voluntary sector organisations are sometimes conceived and born in the horizontal peer world and, as they develop, move to become structured and operating in the vertical hierarchical world. [4] But the significant majority of individuals, groups and networks that make up the horizontal peer world will not be motivated to take on structured contracts to deliver services. The lack of attention to these distinctions however will encourage some groups to move in directions which are inappropriate for them, and they will be ill equipped to handle the effects or to deliver good outcomes. This is the kind of action which weakens rather than strengthens the horizontal peer as people become disheartened and disillusioned, and does not provide a robust system for delivering public services.

6. Governance and accountability issues arising out of different organisational forms of social enterprises and co-operatives; and the participation of voluntary sector and community groups in greater public service provision.

Some forms of small groups and networks in the horizontal peer world may find that the increased flexibility for community interest companies, social enterprises and cooperatives do offer appropriate ways to organise and manage their horizontal peer collective activities. However, to perceive of this as ‘delivering public services’ is to conflate the very different world of the vertical with the horizontal, and impose inappropriate structures, purposes and motivations on the horizontal.

7. The implications for central government and for the civil service of policies which require them to promote and to enable, rather than to manage and to direct, public services.

Government agencies and civil and public servants need to learn to distinguish between the appropriate structures and systems for the delivery of organised services (vertical hierarchical world) and the nature of the horizontal peer world, which is the vital life from which civic engagement springs. Without this, government and civil service will not have the skills and capacity to enable or promote the kind of context within which the horizontal peer world in civic society can flourish. Instead it would be a continuation of the imposition of the wrong kinds of policies, programmes, structures for the informal part of civic society in an attempt to encourage recruits for delivering public services. There is a risk for example that some of this fate may befall the Community Organisers’ programme. [5]

8. The place of local authorities in the transfer of power from Whitehall to communities and the role democratically elected local councillors should play.

Local authorities, with their employed staff and elected local councillors, are part of the vertical hierarchical world. Transfer of power to this level of the system is still not power transfer to the ‘community’. Far from it, as local authorities inhabit the world of the vertical hierarchical as much as does central government. One of the biggest challenges for both local authority staff and elected councillors is to learn the benefits of collaborating with citizens in the horizontal peer world to create enabling structures and processes, in the space of possibilities [6] between the interacting systems, for collaboration and problem solving. This is the path to real effective community engagement. The organisation of the delivery of public services is a separate and different matter. Local elected councillors can play a significant role in real community engagement. But to do this they need to be much more aware of the differences between the two systems interacting from the vertical and horizontal. They, and relevant council staff, need to be strongly supported in navigating this challenging space.

March 2011

[1] The model is derived from my experience as a long term active resident in London , combined with my professional experience in the workings of large institutions. It is informed by understandings through complexity sciences of organisational systems’ behaviour. It is outlined in the paper ‘Community Engagement in the Social Eco-System Dance’, submitted for publication in the journal Emergence: Complexity & Organization ISSN: 1521-3250 In the meantime, a copy can be obtained from the author at:

[2] Pages 10-13 of the paper referenced in [1] detail some of these challenges and provide some preliminary typologies and tools for illuminating the horizontal peer and shining light on it, so that its needs can be adequately addressed.


[3] The scale of the issue is shown by the estimate that there are 600,000 to 900,000 ‘below the radar’ groups in the UK , three quarters of the total in the ‘voluntary & community’ sector: see Phillimore , J. and McCabe, A. (2010). “Understanding the distinctiveness of small scale, third sector activity: the role of local knowledge and networks in shaping below the radar actions.” Third Sector Research Centre Briefing Paper 33, and Working Paper 33.

[4] See the organisation spectrum chart in Figure 7 page 11 in the paper referenced in [1].

[5] See the commentary, in the section ‘Strengthening the Horizontal Peer System,’ on page 13 of the paper referenced in [1].


[6] The space of possibilities is the place where systems interact, and where small actions adjacent to the habitual ones (the adjacent possible ) can take place. These can give rise to change in a constructive way. See pages 7 -9 in the paper referenced in [1].