The Big Society; The Anatomy of the New Politics

The Big Society: The Anatomy of the New Politics
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He is a much sought-after speaker at a range of events including university debates, industry conferences and public policy events. Get informed. Stay Informed. Add email to start Our economic, private and social choices reveal what improves our wellbeing. As explained below, however, the change in policy direction under the Coalition was not so momentous; and in practice many of the underlying trends and policy initiatives that had been developing since the later s were continued, even if with less direct financial support and obvious political enthusiasm.

This was because, whatever the up-front political rhetoric, state support for the third sector in the UK was well-established within government by the beginning of the new century, and largely welcomed and embraced by sector bodies. By the alleged independence of the third sector had already been compromised by its relations with the state. This had also been widely discussed in different forms by a number of commentators both within the UK and internationally.

For instance, Billis had written about the overlapping boundaries between the sector and the state and the market ; and Dekker had argued that hybridity was a common feature of organisational forms across a range of countries where public policy engaged with the sector. What this broader analysis of these relations reveals is that these tension fields are in fact evidence not of the dependence or independence of the third sector, but of the interdependence of both sectors on each other.

As we shall argue below, it is how this interdependence has been managed and developed over the last decade or so that is central to understanding the real impact of the changes in the policy regime in the UK — and this is true of many other welfare regimes too. The Labour government which came to power in was quick to respond to the call for closer relations with the third sector included in the Deakin Commission Report of , and when the party published its own review of relations with the sector, led by Alun Michael, a year later, much of what Deakin had proposed was endorsed in this Labour Party This was early documentary evidence of the interdependence of policy makers — Deakin, though a strong advocate for the sector, was also a keen Labour supporter, and had advised Michael on the Labour review.

Central to the new policy environment however, at least in the early years, was the notion of a third way for public policy planning Blair ; Giddens , intended to capture a rejection of public service policy planning which relied primarily either on the state or the market. There was much rhetoric in this third way discourse, and critics pointed out there was nothing new in promoting reliance on a mix of state and market forces or in being concerned to ensure that service delivery was effective.

But in the context of third sector policy development it created the potential for a more proactive role for the sector to operate as a third force alongside the state and the market. A government seeking to celebrate and promote a new welfare mixing was therefore likely to embrace voluntary and community activity, and to seek to bring it into the mainstream of political debate and policy planning Macmillan and Townsend For instance as the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said in a speech to the NCVO Annual Conference: History shows that the most successful societies are those that harness the energies of voluntary action, giving due recognition to the third sector of voluntary and community organisations.

This new engagement with the sector was also welcomed by key practitioners within it, who embraced the commitment to the creation of a partnership between the state and the sector which soon became the leitmotif of new Labour policy Lewis For instance, Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of NCVO opened a speech in with the words: This is an exciting and challenging time for people working in the voluntary sector … we have seen a growing understanding of, and emphasis on working with, the voluntary sector across government.

Partnership working has become the norm …. Perhaps the most important symbolically was the creation of new institutions to provide focal points for the closer engagement that was planned.

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This was taken up quickly and in the government established a national Compact in England to provide a framework for relations between central government and third sector organisations Home Office Similar Compacts, with much the same aims and structure were implemented shortly after in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The national Compact was also promoted as a model for local compacts, and over the next few years local compacts were implemented in virtually all areas by local authorities, National Health Service agencies and other public bodies Craig et al.

The Compact was a framework for relations, not a legally binding document; and it required both parties to undertake proactive engagement with its guidance and procedures to make it work. National guidance was thus issued on a number of key mattes of concern and later an independent agency, the Compact Commission, was established by government to oversee its implementation and promote good practice under it.

The Compacts provided documentary actualisation of the mainstreaming of state and third sector relations — codifying in official statements what had often been good practice in state and third sector relations.

They also became something of a model for similar attempts to regularise the interdependence of the sector and the state in other developed welfare regimes see Casey et al. The Labour government also moved quickly to reform its internal structures for engagement with the sector. The most significant change came in , however, when with the exception of the Treasury unit these were all merged into the Office for the Third Sector OTS , based at the heart of government in the Cabinet Office.

The OTS took over co-ordination of all government policies and investments for the sector, giving it a portfolio and a budget much larger than its separate constituents. It was supported by a new Minister for the Third Sector within the Cabinet team the first incumbent was Ed Miliband, later leader of the Labour Party , and it had a director, Campbell Robb, who had previously worked at NCVO as its policy lead and who had a strong practice base within the sector.

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His appointment was significant, because senior civil service posts were usually filled by experienced government officers, and it was a clear indication that the partnership and interdependence between the government and the sector could lead to transfer of people as well as ideas and resources, and that a sector perspective and experience could be valued at the centre of government.

Under Robb the OTS established formal mechanisms for engagement, creating an Advisory Body of senior sector representatives and a group of Strategic Partners — the leading third sector infrastructure bodies, who all received funding from the Office to support their partnership work. Another of the recommendations of the Deakin Commission had been that the law on the definition and regulation of charities should be reviewed and updated. Like the Compact and the OTS, charity law reform applied to all third sector organisations; and together these symbolised what Kendall argued was a shift from vertical support for the sector based within particular policy fields to horizontal support provided for any organisations and agencies across the sector.

This horizontal support included in particular financial investment in the sector by government, to help it to deliver on the partnership commitments which flowed from policy mainstreaming. The review led directly to the development of significant new streams of investment to support third sector organisational development.

Delivery of the programme was transferred to a new independent agency, the Social Investment Business SIB , which became a major source of investment support for the sector. SIB funding was sometimes in the form of loans, which in principle at least would be repaid as the business of organisations expanded and developed.

David Cameron The Big Society

In addition to the horizontal funding provided through SIB, the government introduced another programme in called ChangeUp to provide support for infrastructure agencies delivering capacity building services to third sector organisations. However, there were also other policy initiatives for partnership working with third sector organisations, informed by rather different political objectives.

When launching the Compact in , the Prime Minister had praised third sector organisations because, They enable individuals to contribute to the development of their communities. By so doing they promote citizenship, help to re-establish a sense of community and make a crucial contribution to our aim of a just and inclusive society.

Following this in the government published a strategy document on Building Civil Renewal Home Office and established a separate Civil Renewal Unit to provide support for third sector partnership in community based regeneration activity. The unit was merged into the OTS in , but support for this civil renewal activity continued and was part of a continuing policy discourse on the role of the third sector in the promotion of democratic engagement and the enhancement of social capital, which contrasted with the mixed economy and service delivery discourse which underpinned the earlier Treasury cross cutting review.

The civil renewal discourse was also likely to focus on smaller community-based associations rather than the larger, more business-like, organisations involved in the delivery of public services; and one effect of this was to threaten a bifurcation in partnership relations with the sector, between the larger well-funded delivery organisations, and the smaller less well-established community groups. That the former were more likely to share the aims of their public funders and the latter were more likely to be challenging or even campaigning against public agencies, made this division potentially more politically problematic too — for both government and third sector partners.

What it reflected, of course, were the different aims and structures of organisations within the third sector, and the different forms that the interdependence between these organisations and the state took, with some smaller organisations perhaps more prepared to use their position and their funding to challenge state policies or practices Milbourne , Ch. This bifurcation was cast into the shadows in and , however, when the economic recession began to threaten all sources of financial support for the sector. Around 25 sector leaders attended these summits, together with the Minister and officers from OTS.

These summit meetings were, in the short term at least, an example of the success of the partnerships relations established under the Labour governments. The forums for dialogue had been established through the work of the OTS and the investments in the Strategic Partners. The leading sector agencies were confident that they could call on government in what they felt were times of need; and the government acted in response, increasing horizontal support for the sector to go some way to meeting the demands made.

What is more third sector organisations mostly welcomed the partnership agenda and participated actively in it, in particular the infrastructure agencies involved in delivering some of the horizontal funding and the large service delivery charities commissioned to deliver public services. The recession summits, were the high water mark of the deepening interdependence of the state and the sector under Labour.

Sector representatives felt confident in seeking support from government; and government felt obliged to respond in order to sustain the contribution made by voluntary action and organisation. However, at the height of the recession in , there was a general election, and a new Coalition government was elected, who it soon became clear had a rather different view of government support for and engagement with the third sector.

This notion of the Big Society became part of a new political discourse on the relations between government and the third sector. This policy paper was launched shortly after the election by Cameron himself in the garden of 10 Downing Street. The Big Society was a key part of the new political discourse being developed by the Conservatives under Cameron.

It was a discourse intended to distance the Party, and later the government, from the supposed big state politics of the Labour Party and their support for comprehensive public services, and from the free market neo-liberalism which was at that time associated closely with the economic recession. The broader political discourse also attracted contributors outside of the government. The Conservative MP, Jesse Norman , published a book on the subject, linking Big Society thinking back to the roots of Conservative politics in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

A new third sector organisation, the Big Society Network , was set up to promote new forms of community organising. New supporters were also brought into government, notably Nat Wei, a third sector activist, who was made a member of the House of Lords to act as an unpaid advisor on the Big Society. The Big Society discourse promised to extend beyond Cameron and the Conservative Party, therefore, and to champion a new approach to non-government collective action. This led political critics, such as the New Economics Foundation, to suggest that in practice the Big Society was little more than a fig-leaf to cover the yawning gaps that would soon be appearing in public services Coote Although Cameron himself claimed that his support for the Big Society was not just because of the need for government cuts, but was about a new political rhetoric for smaller government, which a Conservative government ought to be promoting whatever the economic context.

Whatever the political rhetoric, however, and as we shall see this was inevitably somewhat short-lived, what mattered for the third sector in the country was what this political rhetoric might mean in policy terms — in particular, of course, because it was third sector organisations who might be expected to fill the spaces between the state and the market, which would be opened up by the retrenchment planned in public service provision.

Cameron in particular had said that he did not like the term third sector and in any event it was closely associated with Labour ; and so the government began to refer to the sector as civil society. Civil society is a rather different concept to third sector, with a longer history and a broader theoretical reach, as discussed later.


But in practical terms the UK government still intended it to embrace the broader scope of third sector organisations mentioned above; and they still retained a central department, within the Cabinet Office, to manage relations with these. They also continued with a Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, who remained in the post until At this broader structural level therefore there was significant continuity of practice, despite the altered rhetoric. However, much of the support for the third sector which had been provided by the OTS under Labour was rapidly scaled back.

The Compact itself was retained, but was slimmed down and, without its associated supporting agency, was soon marginalised in most government departments. The Strategic Partners, the leading sector agencies, complained that this meant that they could no longer act to provide a strong sector voice to government; but to some extent this was just what the new government intended. The aim was to signify a clear policy break from the partnership and hyperactive mainstreaming of the Labour era, in particular through the abandonment of the commitment to extensive horizontal support for the third sector, and a return to a much more limited vertical engagement with government on specific policy initiatives or in the delivery of particular service contracts.

There were nevertheless some more specific policy initiatives developed and delivered by the OCS. A new national programme was also introduced within the OCS, based on ideas promoted by advisors to the Prime Minister. This was the National Citizens Service, which aimed to provide short term volunteering opportunities for 16 year olds in their summer vacations. These were fully funded by government and delivered by selected volunteer providers; but inevitably could only reach a maximum of around 30, young people each year out of an age cohort of around , , and in practice did not even reach target numbers in the first few years.

These were small scale investments compared with the support provided through OTS under Labour, but they continued some commitment from government to support at least those activities which they wanted third sector organisations to participate in. At the centre of this was the belief that third sector organisations could benefit from investment loans linked to business development, and that some investors would be keen to make these loans if the vehicles to promote and co-ordinate such activity existed. What is more, in particular at times of cutbacks in public funding, the promotion of these forms of social investment was felt to be a more appropriate role for a government that nevertheless wanted to get more resources into the sector.

In addition to the Social Investment Business SIB , which the government continued to promote, they established a new social investment bank, Big Society Capital, with resources from the leading private banks, including the funds in some of their dormant bank accounts, and able to make loans on preferential terms to third sector organisations who wanted to grow their businesses. The previous Labour government had already been planning to introduce a social investment bank along the lines of Big Society Capital; and in this area, as in a number of others, the Coalition government was in fact continuing policy interventions developed by Labour, despite the rhetorical attempts to distance themselves from these.

The support for public sector workers to establish new mutual organisations to deliver their services independently of government in the Right to Provide, had also been promoted by Labour, who called it a Right to Request.

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And this was part of a much broader commitment by both governments to increase the role of third sector organisations in the delivery of public welfare services, as part of more general strategies to promote user choice through the availability of alternative service providers. This was promoted by the publication in of a White Paper entitled Open Public Services , followed by new guidance on commissioning for public agencies and the passing of the Public Services Social Value Act , which was supposed to promote the use of social value assessments in the commissioning of services.

Before it had been social care provision, commissioned by local authorities, which had provided the main opportunities for third sector organisations to take over the provision of public services, although this also attracted many private sector providers, especially in the residential field. But after that some other significant public service programmes were contracted-out, most notably the Work Programme from the Department of Work and Pensions, which provided employment advice and work placements for the long term unemployed, and later probation service support for ex-offenders from the Ministry of Justice.

However, these central commissioning procedures also included a greater focus on the outcomes of services, in particular the linking of contract payments to the achievement of specified performance indicators. As a result of this, in the Work Programme in particular, it was private companies, rather than third sector organisations, who secured most of the major contracts, largely because only they had the financial capital and organisational scale to take on the risks of contracting, with voluntary providers mainly only involved as sub-contractors in some specialist fields.

In practice, therefore, it was market competition rather than voluntary and community action which increasingly began to dominate public service reform in the UK. This was intended to provide support for local people to take control of their own local services, such as shops, pubs or broadband delivery, although it only covered four relatively small local areas: Liverpool, Windsor and Maidenhead, Sutton, and the Eden Valley in Cumbria.

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Liverpool withdrew shortly after the launch claiming that the cuts to local authority budgets there meant that supporting local action was no longer really feasible; and after about a year support for the other vanguards was quietly withdrawn. Alcock, P. Next Article. In his new book, he embeds this thinking in the rhetoric of David Cameron's "big society" and gives that notion some much-needed intellectual ballast. By it was not mentioned at all.

It was not a success, however. Liverpool withdrew shortly after the launch claiming that the cuts to local authority budgets there meant that supporting local action was no longer really feasible; and after about a year support for the other vanguards was quietly withdrawn. This was a relatively early example of the limitations that were beginning to be exposed by- the impact of the policy initiatives flowing from the Big Society rhetoric.

What is more, most of the new policy initiatives had relatively little reach, especially within the third sector. Public service reform mainly favoured private providers. There was little appetite for social investment, from both investors and third sector organisations. And new programmes such as the National Citizens Service and the Community Organiser scheme, were very small scale — especially when compared to the horizontal investment developed under the previous government. As mentioned above, the Big Society was in fact a political discourse rather than a policy programme; and, as with most political rhetoric, initial enthusiasm soon began to wane.

In David Cameron had mentioned the term four times in his Party Conference speech. By it was not mentioned at all. The idea had never in practice commanded much support across the main service providing government departments, and the Ministers representing these did not really take it up. Supporters outside government also began to fall away.

Nat Wei quit his role as government advisor in , claiming that he could no longer afford to dedicate his time to such voluntary activity. Jesse Norman fell from favour after twice voting against the Government in the Commons.

From its demands that local people take over the running of their library to an insistence that local authorities substantially cut their provisions, the Big Society seems to have generated a fragmented range of responses that confuse rather than focus the concept in theory and practice. Jesse Norman is the new Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, an honorary fellow of University College, London and a former executive director of the think tank Policy Exchange, and he brings some academic acumen to the Big Society debate.

He devotes some attention to neglected aspects of thinkers such as Aristotle, Hobbes, Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott, and includes critical references not only to John Stuart Mill but also more recent thinkers such as Michael Sandal and Amartya Sen. In contrast,. Notably this contrasts with the old conservative critique of the Labour Party, that it was being run by the trade unions who were not Fabian socialists; and interestingly, trade unions hardly feature among the civic institutions that Norman says should form a key part of the new Big Society.