From the TUC

What the Big Society really means (again)

23 May 2011, by in Public services

Another week, another Big Society relaunch.

On the back of further evidence that the general public is still failing to get the message, David Cameron used his speech in Milton Keynes today to once again set out what the Big Society means and how his government plans to support it.

I’m not entirely sure that the prime minister made things that much clearer.  But one thing’s for sure, the market for public services remains integral to the Big Society vision.

The speech covered a range of policy areas loosely knitted together under a roaming narrative of family values, social responsibility and punishing welfare scroungers.  As before, we were reminded of Mr Cameron’s personal commitment:  “it’s what fires me up in the morning”.  And, in a move no doubt aimed at critics in his own ranks as well as others, the Big Society was placed at the heart of government policy.  The Big Society is “not some fluffy add-on”.

On this last point, I believe he is correct.  Because so much of this provides the ideological underpinning that is integral to a wider policy of cutting public spending and opening up markets for public services.

The prime minister was clear.  The Big Society way to improve public services is to “break open state monopolies and open them up to new providers” and to call on “our charities, social enterprises and private companies to get involved.”

We have blogged before on how spending cuts are devastating the voluntary, community and charity sector and who the winners tend to be in a public service market.  We know, therefore, that spending cuts and marketisation may prove a toxic combination for civil society.

But even where organisations are able to win contracts, what does this mean for voluntary action?

In a working paper of July 2010, the Third Sector Research Centre identified six potential impacts on the shape and direction of third sector organisations through the commissioning and procurement process:

  • compromised independence
  • mission drift
  • loss of innovation
  • worsening employment conditions
  • deteriorating inter-organisational relationships
  • polarisation within the sector.

Mission drift and compromised independence are significant risks.  A survey by the Charity Commission found that only a quarter of charities providing public services agreed that they are free to make decisions without pressure to conform to the wishes of funders, compared to nearly three fifths of charities that did not deliver public services.

This led the Commission to conclude that:

“charities that deliver public services are significantly less likely to agree that their charitable activities are determined by their mission rather than by funding opportunities”

This dilemma is summed up in a report commissioned by the Institute for Voluntary Action Research where the authors found that, although evidence was variable, overall the impact of public service delivery was that:

“some organisations have been drawn by the availability of funding away from community development and community responsiveness towards delivery of public services and services designed externally rather than in direct response to local need … in making this shift, their potential to act as agents of community change or as advocate for local people has been diminished.”

The problem is intensified for smaller, niche organisations that often struggle to engage with the commissioning process.  Many of these niche operators will be dependent on other organisations sub-contracting their services, many of which will be private sector or larger charity organisations imposing tougher commissioning regimes.

This may also be the case as public service commissioners are encouraged to achieve procurement efficiencies through larger contracts and the sharing of procurement functions across departments and organisations.

In their excellent report on the Big Society, the National Coalition of Independent Action (NCIA) identify the government’s aim as “to institutionalise the idea that the preferred way to fund traditionally charitable activity is through ‘social enterprise’ methods:  loans and income generation through contracts or trading, rather than grants or public subsidies”.

In the Big Society, charities and voluntary groups become providers and businesses.  Advocacy, campaigning, independence and voluntary action in communities disintegrates as market imperatives take over.

Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, was not wrong when he told Third Sector that “the role of civil society will change significantly”

And this also might explain why the Prime Minister’s vision places such an emphasis on individual volunteering.  As NCIA put it:

“In the gap between what the state won’t provide, determined by the cuts, and what the private or voluntary sector can’t make money from, people will be left to their own arrangements”.