Smaller Government: Bigger Society?

Written evidence submitted by Open Source Consortium (BS 82)

A submission from the Open Source Consortium (OSC) a UK trade association for SME suppliers of services based on Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) run by volunteers seeking to promote the advantages of open standards and FOSS in an information society and knowledge economy.


1. Big Society comes about when government re-profiles its activities more closely to the essential roles of the state.

2. This creates challenges arising from "doing nothing" which can be more difficult to defend than "doing something" particularly if society has been encouraged to accept the idea that government can always do something.

3. The introduction of contestability and choice into public service provision can assist the re-profiling.

Question 1

4. A bigger society is what happened when government re-profiles its activities so that it becomes closer to a platform rather than a provider.

5. An over active public sector can too easily displace other initiatives (either conventional commercial activity or gift economy (including charitable and voluntary) activity [1] [2] and so destroy or disguise the signals arising in society about what needs to be done and perhaps more importantly what doesn't need to be done.

6. In a recent radio programme [3] a former CEO was succinct in describing the continual challenges faced by an organisation driven by customer choice rather than taxes and compulsion:

"It's customers that make Tesco a success and it's customers that can break Tesco. Customers exercise choice every day. When they don't like Tesco they won't be in there"

7. Even apparently successful government activity is not an indicator that big government is necessary unless it is capable of surviving being contested by alternatives. [4] [5] [6]

Question 2

8. Government may only spend money that it can justify raising through tax and borrowing. However, the unique position of government to raise revenue must be accompanied by clear justification for activities beyond the basic functions of the State to protect its citizens. It must minimise the distorting effects of dead-weight costs of intervention, particularly in matters of service provision.

9. The economic case for "doing something" must be preceded by a rigorous analysis of "doing nothing" (ref 4 ibid)

10. Charities and voluntary bodies exist because committed organisations and individuals identify a need they consider requires addressing. However, if government funds these activities in a manner where effectively, charitable and voluntary bodies become service arms of the state, then these groups can lose their customer/client focus and substitute instead the survival of the organisation as the meta-goal with possible reductions in overall effectiveness.

Question 3

11. Charitable income and voluntary labour by its very nature has been freely given to an organisation. The donor of such time or money has taken a decision to forgo other activity or consumption in order to further the aims and objectives the charity/voluntary body.

12. In the same way that a customer exercises choice, continued donations of time or money are a signal that the charity/voluntary bodies continue to meet their implicit as well as explicit objectives.

13. The embedded localism will contain tacit and implicit knowledge that cannot be matched by central initiatives. This localism might be the basis of a business case for tranches of money, but it should also be able to provide (and require) an evidence based justification for public funds. And any funding should be provided with the words of Sir Terry Leahy in mind: even the recipients of charity should not be perceived as a passive actor.

14. Such localism will lead to differing profiles of activity which could easily be re-badged as a post-code lottery by those seeking to justify state provision possibly in the cause of no losers but ultimately creating losers at the expense of dead-weight loss to the economy and society.

Question 4

15. The biggest challenge will be the apparent loss of control. Of course it is commonplace that the levers of control are illusionary but it is always possible to create an initiative. The difficulties can be quite challenging. The discussion of versus is old news but recently resurfaced [7] and is another example of the difficulty of government doing nothing. No-one uses a search engine they do not trust and trust is created by experience and outcomes.

16. It is a challenge to enable rather than "do" and as good a metaphor as any is provided by the beekeeper [8] model of engagement with the FOSS developer community. Try as hard as they might, beekeepers cannot make honey:

"The Bee Keeper creates an environment that is attractive for bees: accommodation and a natural, food-rich habitat. The bees do what they do naturally and make honeycombs. The Bee Keeper sells the honey and bees-wax to his customers and uses the money to grow his bee farm"

Question 5

17. The model proposed is not so different from the decisions over the years to privatise various parts of the public sector. The essential characteristic that these employee-owned public service co-operatives is that they must be able to fail and others must be free to contest the market (references 4,5 ibid).

18. The "spectre" of provision failure in such cases is overcome by plurality of customer channel (customer choice) and not by gold-plating a single point of failure [9] (also refs 4,5,6 ibid).

19. Even in circumstances where it was once thought necessary to intervene, circumstances change and a government should be capable of stopping doing things it previously thought necessary. For example immediately after World War Two all political parties campaigned on a promise to control the food supply chain [10] . It is difficult to imagine today any political party campaigning to take control of supermarkets.

Question 6

20. The governance and accountability issues were addressed in the Cabinet Office consultation document (ref 5 ibid).

21. By enabling contestability and (coining a phrase from the PASC public hearing 16 March 2011) pay-as-you-go government [11] , governance and accountability is driven by choice in the big society.

Question 7

22. The externally facing issues have been addressed by the answers to the forgoing questions. The internally facing issues will be ones of organisational design and development for a civil service with a reduced role in delivery.

Question 8

23. Local Authorities are already more directly accountable than central Government departments. Local initiatives should be driven by local accountability and local funding.

Question 9

24. Give users choice not voice. It is not simply a case of demanding "Swedish levels of public services with American taxation levels" [12] it is about user control enabling allocation of resources. One might choose to buy a cheese sandwich from a supermarket shelf, from a cafe or from a hotel lounge; each correspondingly more expensive. Fundamentally it is still a cheese sandwich, and the additional "features" are a matter of personal choice.

25. The metaphorical equivalent of the cheese sandwich might still be the role of government; the provision of the customer channel need not be and is the best way for making sure that we don't get "American levels of public services with Swedish taxation levels".

Appendix (already published as part of PASC inquiry into Government IT)

March 2011

[1] Coase's Penguin

[2] Homesteading the Noosphere

[3] Mr Tesco – The Legacy of Terry Leahy, BBC Radio 4, 12 March 2011

[4] Appendix

[5] Policy framework for a mixed economy in the supply of e-government services, Cabinet Office, May 2003, available from

[6] A fair field and no favours – competitive neutrality in UK public service markets, CBI Policy Brief, January 2006 available from$file/fairfield.pdf




[10] Streamlining Shopping, History Today, November 2002 – History Today Ltd,

[11] Martin Rice, Erudine , PASC Inquiry into government IT, public hearing 16 March 2011

[12] User comment on article