Big society and public services: complementarity or erosion?

The Big Society and Public Services is a detailed report that unpacks many of the contradictions and ambiguities behind the rhetoric and policy proposals of the big society. A key finding of the report is that the one of the big claims of big society policy – that it combines strengthening the independence of communities, and encouraging them to take over public services – is  contradictory.

The report argues that taking over public services actually makes voluntary organisations more, not less dependent on the state. The most independent and economical form of community action is the work of community groups which carry out their own activities.

Supporting community groups is economical because they take pressure off public services by spreading their own forms of wellbeing, informal skills, learning, mutual aid and personal responsibility, and require only a fraction of their value through state support.

Community groups are independent of the state, consisting mainly of members and volunteers, and  can therefore  express the views of communities and hold public services to account, no matter which sector the services are delivered by.

The paper argues that to succeed in empowering communities the big society must develop specific criteria and an investment programme for supporting independent community groups, as the leading edge of the big society policy and quite separately from any policy to encourage social enterprises to take over public services. This needs to be backed up by reformed community development, better amenities for groups and more widely available grants.

About Gabriel Chanan, Colin Miller and PACES.

Gabriel Chanan and Colin Miller have been involved in community empowerment and community development issues as activists, practitioners, managers, researchers and writers for many years. They have worked together on a wide range of projects and  set up PACES  as a ‘think tank’ June 2010. Through this they  have developed an extensive range of downloadable publications and reports on issues relating to community empowerment, the big society, skills development and evaluation.

Recent projects  include working with the Health Empowerment Leverage Project – HELP – funded by the Department of Health, to develop the business case for employing a community development approach to improve health and wellbeing in local communities (

Executive summary

1. The Prime Minister’s original intention for the big society was about strengthening of communities and nurturing personal responsibility amongst citizens.

2. As the big society practical agenda emerges, the objectives of community empowerment and personal responsibility are in danger of being lost.

3. The aim of strengthening communities is being confused with the running of public services by voluntary organisations and social enterprises.

4. Empowering communities means strengthening mutual aid, social capital, volunteering, local democracy and also the voice of the community vis a vis public services.

5. The main vehicle for strengthening communities is the independent activities of the mass of community groups, which are not social enterprises.

6. The National Survey of Third Sector Organisations shows that local community groups are by far the majority of the sector.

7.The mass of independent community groups initiate and pursue their own independent activities, not selling services or bidding to take over services defined by public bodies.

8. Community groups consist wholly or almost wholly of members and volunteers. They do not seek full cost recovery for their work. They need background support in the form of community development, small grants, meeting space, cooperative networks and skills for active citizenship.

9. Community groups are independent of the state, hence are the authentic expression and voice of the community. Whereas social enterprises naturally seek to sell a service at full cost recovery, community groups just need background support in order to make the maximum impact, but only a small minority are getting it.

10. The cost-benefit of state support for community groups is not that they take over public services but that they take pressure off them by spreading wellbeing in their own ways.

11. The first responsibility of big society must be a strong policy to support community activity in its own right. Diversifying providers and encouraging social enterprises only makes sense as supplementary to this.

12. Growth of social enterprises is important for the local economy but is not a substitute for the strengthening of the community. Social enterprises consist mainly of professional staff, not members or volunteers.

13.  Social enterprises and professionally-led charities, however skilled and however empathetic to communities, are businesses and cannot be the voice of local communities

13. Running public services makes voluntary organisations more, not less, dependent on the state.

14. Agencies which commission public services from third sector organisations or anyone else must remain responsible for ensuring standards are met.

15. Larger community groups can take on a social enterprise function to support their main purposes so long as they do not confuse the two roles. Big society policy should help them enhance their primary role not just take on more business.

16. The big society agenda contains elements which would strengthen communities but these are weakened and their inadequate scale concealed by being incorporated into the public service commissioning agenda.

17. The presentation of big society as new, and the absence of any baseline, combined with a rush by the more professionalised voluntary and community organisations to rebrand themselves as big society, makes it difficult to see whether community strengthening is growing or not.

18. The main instrument for strengthening local communities and their groups is community development.

19. The big society’s ‘community organisers’ would in effect be community development workers. The absence of any recognition of community development in the big society narrative cuts it off from a rich current of experience and threatens to repeat avoidable mistakes.

20. Community development practice itself needs reforming and expanding, and some principles for this are already in place.

21. Community organisers’ training should take account of the community development tradition and pick up from the reform movement within it.

22. Big society and community development should work together on a mutual improvement agenda.

23. The big society remains potentially a bold idea which could change society for the better but only if the empowerment element is made the leading edge instead of the poor relation.

24. Big society policy should be divided into two clear streams, one regarding strengthening communities and one regarding service provision – a ‘provider-user split’. Each should have its own distinct objectives, criteria and mechanisms. Strengthening communities would include strengthening their ability to hold service providers to account, no matter what sector those providers were in. The Big Society bank should provide grants to community organisations as well as loans to social enterprises.

25. Infrastructure groups in the voluntary and community sector have a vital role to play in supporting both empowerment and social enterprises. They may themselves be social enterprises but it is essential that they and those who commission them are clear about the primacy of the community empowerment role and that this is reflected in distinct objectives and workstreams.

Gabriel Chanan and Colin Miller

Full text downloadable at