What’s the problem with the ‘Big Society’?

Nat Wei is experiencing something of a buffeting for sensibly deciding that working for the government for free for three days a week creates an imbalance in his responsibilities to provide for his family and ‘have a life’. He can continue to work two days per week for free to promote the Big Society and remains an advocate for the concept.


The Evening Standard covers this story here: http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/lifestyle/article-23920428-how-my-top-government-job-left-me-almost-penniless-and-unable-to-support-my-family.do


Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society (@minforcivsoc on Twitter) defended him against the ‘silly knocking’ saying that he is a ‘tireless champion of the citizen’ and that he is ‘personally v grateful for the time he gives us’.


I like to see a man stand up for his friends, but I don’t think the knocking is really about Nat Wei. This story just neatly illustrates the underlying problems that afflict the concept of the ‘Big Society’ itself. So I tweeted as much to Nick Hurd and he came back with this challenge: “What don’t you like about concept?”


Fair question. Here’s my 10-point starter:


The ‘Big Society’ is conceptually flawed because:


1)       It fails to recognise local democratic accountability and structures

2)       It shows no understanding of how the existing voluntary sector is funded, supported and intertwined with local government

3)       It overlooks local government’s capacity and intelligence as a commissioner, supporter and enabler of local activism

4)       It pretends that geographical communities are homogenous with shared needs and interests whereas they are in fact fragmented into smaller groups with needs and interests in conflict

5)       For this reason, it privileges the ‘wants’ and ‘demands’ of the already well-resourced, aggressive, organised or time-rich over those whose need may be greater but whose capacity for activism is less

6)       It enshrines a Victorian model of philanthropy which will enable those with time and money to decide which causes are ‘deserving’

7)       It enables a framework of public discourse in which vital public services can disappear and that’s OK because “if you’d really wanted them you’d have got together and saved them”

8)       It insults professionals whose jobs big society advocates don’t understand by implying that they are easy and can be done by others without skills or training

9)       It legitimises public sector redundancies when clearly the roles and responsibilities are not ‘redundant’, big society advocates just want people to work for nothing while cheerfully destabilising families and individuals who work for a living, not a hobby

10)   It is accompanied by cuts which will savage the infrastructure for local voluntarism where it is effective


And for a bonus point:


*) It is rooted in a sense of (already privileged) entitlement and has no basis in social justice

As our Minister for Civil Society is never less than civil, he’s kindly replied and asked whether there’s anyone wanting to add to the list, or argue with it?

Please feel free to do either of those things.


29 thoughts on “What’s the problem with the ‘Big Society’?

  1. 11. it overlooks the many who have always given some of their time to help others and who provide a community balance to projects and organisations. They may not have wealth, but they give themselves. The Big Society is insulting to those whose lives have always consisted of supporting a causes and organistaions they believe in.I agree that Nat Wei should not be criticised for having common sense.

  2. If 3rd sector organisations in poorer communities (assume communities which are cohesive – pretend like point 4 above wasn’t as valid as it is) are to close, with the government expecting local community members to pick up the slack. How are they meant to afford this? If someone is working 2 jobs just to be able to make sure their dependants have food on the table, when are they meant to get involved in their community with the same level of passion, dedication and skill as those trained professional 3rd sector workers who have lost their jobs?The big society idea works well when you have a group of people who have the time and resources to give up many hours to get involved in local community activities. If people are struggling to get by, they will look out for those who need them the most – in many cases, their families. This will make communities more fractured, as their lives become more competitive. If someone can afford to do non-paid work for 3 days a week (as I believe Mr Wei said he could not) then they can fit into the big society idea. In less affluent areas, the big society is just not valid – and it demeans all 3rd sector workers, who do not earn big money, but still work tirelessly to help others.

  3. I do worry about this. #6 in particular. It feels like we’re moving back to the deserving/undeserving poor in all areas, not just around ‘Big Society’, whatever that is. The poor punished for being poor..

  4. As penny_patterson nicked my comment, I’ve come up with another one.12. Remember the 5000 community organisers who were going to be trained, over the lifetime of this Government, to "identify local community leaders, bring communities together, help people start their own neighbourhood groups, and give communities the help they need to take control and tackle their problems"? The plan now is for 500 full-time senior community organisers, each to have responsibility at borough or district level, supported (in theory) by 4500 part-time voluntary community organisers who will provide support at local level. The Government has outsourced this to a "national partner" (they haven’t said who yet – the announcement is apparently imminent) who will train 800 community organisers by 2010. It seems likely that there will be enough redundant and desperate ex-public sector workers to fill the senior posts. However, the full-time senior organisers will be responsible for raising the funds to pay for their own salaries and activities. They will also, presumably, be responsible for recruiting, training and supporting the part-time voluntary organisers, and with volunteer turnover averaging 19% this will be ongoing. Which will not leave the full-time organisers much time to do their core work.And that core work is enormous. I live in East Staffordshire which covers 150 square miles, has two main towns – Burton-on-Trent and Uttoxeter – and dozens of villages, with a total population of around 110,000 people. How can one full-time person, with a handful of part-time volunteers, identify local community leaders, bring communities together etc etc across such a huge patch? As always in this borough, any work done will happen in Burton with no visible impact elsewhere. And I’m sure every borough and district has a similar tale to tell.I simply do not see how this programme will make any significant difference to our society as a whole. I very much doubt it will create 4500 new volunteers. I have worked in volunteer recruitment so I know how hard it is to recruit volunteers, especially for anything which doesn’t involve children, sick people or animals. If this initiative does manage to recruit 4500 volunteers, I can’t see them coming from anywhere but the existing third sector. Then again, so many charities are closing, perhaps that is possible too.

  5. I founded Girl Geek Scotland from the position of employment in 2008. Government sector cuts have savaged the university sector and now many highly skilled people from that sector are unemployed. I am one of them. Because of this I am now looking for employment internationally and must either wind down GGS or find a host of other people to take of the role I had as founder and director, so that I can be mobile for employment.So far I have found 7 people to volunteer help with my role. I still need more support if I am to make sure that my role is covered and Girl Geeks can continue.

  6. The government’s vision of ‘Big Society’ is a centralised, top-down hierarchical arrangement. However, successful community action and organisations are the exact opposite: non-hierarchical, decentralised/local and bottom up.The last thing deprived but active deprived communities like my own need is a bunch of out-of-touch millionaires in Whitehall telling them how to run their lives & community.

  7. After reading that Standard interview I have to say I have great admiration for Nat Wei. I also love the idea of the Big Society. The problem is that Cameron’s version stinks.I’m the Broker of one seven time banks in Islington. I have plenty of members with the time to be involved in making their communities a better place. They are retired or disabled or refugees or carers or bringing up children or students or still a long way from holding down a job (when there are any to be had). Justice is about treating equals equally so they need knowledge, contacts, training, coaching and support. Without all that you have a Smaller Society that excludes them or treats them as a problem instead of the solution. Needless to say we have lost nearly all our funding to do any of this.There’s a lot of technology behind the mechanisms being designed to make this Big Society happen. That’s because it’s cheap. People will be excluded if they can’t understand the English, don’t know how to use this stuff or can’t afford it. See bottom comment here:http://blog.islingtontimebanks.org/?page_id=192PS. Love your list.

  8. It’s a great list – very, very powerful. I am not sure that #9 is quite fair; I think redundancies are being driven by hasty decision-making, happening too late in the financial year, not as a result of a strategic shift to ‘big society’ principles.An addition: The Big Society narrative lacks any sense of the scale of the shift in culture and capability within the mainstream public sector if we are to harness the undoubted potential that exists within families and communities for co-design of services and co-production of better outcomes. This requires a massive transformation of mindset. The continued attempts by Whitehall to drive the so-called ‘bottom-up’ change using traditional top-down levers demonstrates how little this is understood.

  9. Whilst I agree that the timing of the launch of the Big Society agenda may be unfortunate, some criticisms are unfair. My take on Big Society is that it is an affirmation of the values and contribution which wider society makes to our individual and collective wellbeing. I therefore welcome the coalition government’s championing of the agenda – not before time too.My response to some of the criticisms I have read:1.
    It fails to recognise the democratic accountability and structures. Response: It does nothing of the sort. BS strengthens participative democracy and allows the citizen to be part of the solution rather than a recipient of ‘received wisdom’.2.
    It shows no understanding of how the existing voluntary sector is funded, supported and intertwined with local government.Response: The problem of the current relationship between local government and the voluntary sector is that it has become too defined by the flow of funding and therefore of a principal-agent type. We need the relation ship to become based on true partnership and of a principal-steward type. 3.
    It overlooks local government’s capacity and intelligence as a commissioner, supporter and enabler of local activism.Response: If anything, the government has enhanced the role of local government through some of the measures and recognised its leadership role. However, in many cases, the party politics of local government may have stifled rather than enabled local activism – too ‘representative democracy’–centric rather than ‘participative democracy’-centric.4.
    It pretends that geographical communities are homogeneous with shared needs and interests whereas they are in fact fragmented into smaller groups with needs and interests.Response: Big Society offers an opportunity for fragmented local groups to consider common interests and achieve greater local impact. This will have the added advantage of fostering stronger community cohesion.5.
    For this reason (4), it privileges the ‘wants’ and ‘demands’ of the already well-resourced, aggressive, organised or time-rich over those whose need may be greater but whose capacity for activism is less.Response: This is exactly the current situation in my experience, at worst then Big Society will make no impact here. However, I believe that by taking a ‘place’ approach there is better chance for the smaller groups to be included.6.
    It enshrines a Victorian model of philanthropy which will enable those with time and money to decide which causes are deserving. Response: Under current circumstance of spending cuts this would appear to be the case, however, Big Society needs to be assessed over the long-term. In such case the state and ‘Victorian’ philanthropy would complement one another.7.
    8. 9. and 10. are seen as natural consequence of spending cuts. Rather than blame Big Society why not see it as promoting an alternative and more sustainable scenario for sustaining some of the cherished services.

  10. "The Big Society" is what happens when people feel sufficiently empowered in cohesive and connected communities. Empowering people means ensuring universal quality provision and infrastructure so that people are able to act. This is being destroyed. Cohesive communities happen when people mix and develop understanding and reciprocity in shared institutions. These are being farmed out to particular groups and so that they will no longer build bridges. Communities are connected by shared groups and places. That’s what community centres, libraries, citizens panels and community organisations do at the moment. The error in the government’s thinking is to believe. that these groups and places will spring up spontaneously. In fact the state needs to build these up to prime the pump of collective, bottom up action. Yes that sort of action is an end we should aim for and has the potential to be incredibly (and increasingly) powerful but no you don’t get that by tearing away its building blocks. (And by the way- I fail to see why the state is now treated as if it were some abstract, alien institution rather than as a shared, pool of our resources that we have built up because we want to represent our collective interests and live in a society that includes all the good things it provides – it is in fact PART of the big society.)Loic Menzies – http://www.lkmconsulting.co.uk – @LKMco

  11. Big society has existed for years – this new concept is just tory piffle (like nanny state – I wouldn’t really know what was meant by that having never had a nanny!!) – but unfortunately if taken to extremes could threaten the livliehood of people working in the public sector – though how volunteer librarians, gardeners etc would ever work !!! Surely our ‘big’ society has exhausted the volunteers available thro’ community groups and charities that already exist.

  12. It ignores the fact that historically levels of volunteering have varied only relatively little so either it is fanciful in hoping for much higher levels of volunteer work or it is a big government driven re-organisation of structures of volunteering.

  13. BS not just ‘conceptually flawed’ but willfully so – akin to Naomi Kline’s shock doctrine, whereby the public and civil realm is softened up for backdoor privitisation to SERCO and battalions of new charity and private sector brands, likely to further entrench poverty

  14. #14 – Big Society is another way of saying "depersonalization". In a big society, accountability is abolished (If we’re all in this together, it’s everyone’s fault, not just mine etc). If, as a "Big Society" we are required to suffer as a collective, some people will still always suffer more than others, and their suffering will most likely increase. It lays blame for our economic catatonia at the feet of children, the elderly and the disabled, who have no way of defending themselves from Big Society chopping blocks (Reduction or removal of vital services, welfare etc). It’s easy to talk about austerity, sacrifice and camaraderie when your definition of a tight month is having to rent out a room in the West Wing of your countryside retreat, or raise the rent rates of your holiday homes in the Mediterranean. Big Societies do not grow. They do not accumulate, because they do not speculate. If you cast your mind back 20 or 30 years, you might remember a little thing called the USSR. Once, the world’s most powerful coalition of countries, including Russia and East Germany, they threatened the stability of the modern world for over 50 years. The USSR (aka The Soviet Union) was founded on pretty much the same ideology as the "Big Society". Everyone toils, everyone sacrifices and everyone will be happy about it, because it is for the good of the State. But here’s a tasty little snippet of information that the Big Society bankrollers should chew on before they make a move; The USSR can now be found languishing in the stagnant remains of a failed political model, somewhere just outside of China.

  15. The problem with the big society is, lest we forget, that over half of the voting population have no confidence in the Conservative’s decision making and therefore, did not vote for them

  16. The 10 (+ one bonus) points are clear and accurate. My additional point, however, is that the objections raised might just reflect this government’s intentions behind their ‘big society’ slogan. As with Michael Howard’s ‘active citizens’ there seems to be no place in the ‘big society’ for the likles of Release, CND, Amnesty or trade unions. Says it all really.

  17. In it he writes of ‘determination to give power away’ at the same time as Eric Pickles wants to prescribe exactly how many newsletters local government can produce per year, and in the week when Michael Gove has been slapped by a high court judge for an ‘abuse of power’ over the cancellation BSF. Not much ‘giving power away’ there. The Localism Bill won’t ‘transfer power to communities’ for the reasons I have outlined above. It will transfer power to the nimbys, the vociferous, well-resourced and well-funded. The vulnerable will be less powerful as a result. ‘oening up the public sector’ is a euphemism for privatisation, reduced job-security, reduced professionalism and expertise (look at free-schools where teachers will no longer need teaching qualification). In some cases, where this devlops organically, it can lead to genuine innovation. Elsewhere this ‘creative chaos’ is a recipe for system collapse. Making it ‘Easier and compelling’ for people to contribute time and money to help others. My time is less, now that I pick up the work of others whose jobs have been cut, and my money is less too, now that I have had a pay freeze, have to pay 1% of my salary to park at my workplace and have to suck up the inflationary rise in basic essentials (£1.30 per litre of diesel, anyone!?)Those lovely banks have put in £200millon to the Big Society Bank. Hmmm – that’s just 22 bonus payments to the ‘Diamond Geezer’. A drop in the ocean. Nick Hurd your government is trampling on the great work of mlions of people across the country. I’d like @minforcivsoc to get real.

  18. An excellent summary. The ludicrously named ‘Big Society’ (a monikor which drips with the warm PR of ‘everyone mucking in’) is nothing more than a sleight of hand to overturn a century and a half of social progress, to enshrine the poverty of those unable to work (who we are told must always be worse off than those who can work) and make the vulnerable grateful for the few scraps that they get from the table.It is outrageously undemocratic, seeks to subvert existing democratic structures and attempts to denigrate existing democratically elected bodies as bureaucratic and leaden with red tape (accountability). It is, in short, a fraud on the people of this country.

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