A Big Society must include all elements of society

I recently contributed comments to a blog posting about the role of the public sector in the Big Society debate. I was responding to the author’s comment where he said, “Make no mistake – the private sector has a massive role to play and will deliver strong short-term savings. But it will not create the Big Society.”. Whilst this was clearly not a criticism of the private sector per se it did imply that it has little role to play in the Big Society and I think this misses a big opportunity.

It is important not to view the ‘Big Society’ as something that is somehow separate from ‘Society’ as a whole. The values exemplified by the ‘Big Society’ provide us with a vision of what we want society to become – and in a modern western nation the private sector is an intrinsic part of that society.

Is there not a danger that if we create an artificial construct that excludes the private sector, then there is a greater danger of it failing? A Big Society that does not include all sectors playing their part, misses an opportunity. If the Nat West Bank makes customer commitment 11 that it will be supporting a minimum level of staff volunteering, surely this is to applauded and seen as an integral example of the private sector playing its part in society. My TCC Colleague Charlie Mansell recently blogged how private sector organisations could help with supporting social networks in areas such as the Change4Life campaign. In other words there are a wider range of approaches to developing the Big Society that some social entrepreneurs with their understandable enthusiasm for promoting the sector they work in, might be missing out on.

In saying all this I speak as someone who is in the private sector. The values of TCC are absolutely in tune with those of the ‘Big Society’. And I don’t just mean in a googlesque ‘do no evil’ way or because we have adopted a CSR policy – but because we actively see our central mission as being one that helps tackle social, economic and health inequality. We certainly don’t feel that our ownership model hinders this mission – indeed in many ways our ability, for example, to take bounded risks which we, and only we, are responsible for increases the chances of innovation and enhances it.

Much of the debate in the Big Society is that it will lead to some sort of transfer of ownership. Thus any private sector involvement might then be seen as akin to 1980’s “privatisation”. Allowing a social enterprise, mutual of charity to deliver is now seen as the acceptable solution to past criticisms of a simple privatisation approach. However I’m not convinced that a change of ‘ownership’ inevitably leads to a real change in the nature of the relationship between service provider and user where one can see a shift in the balance of power and responsibility towards co-production. It’s much more complicated than that.

One of the reasons for that is the issue of different value sets held by individuals and organisations. There is often a  mismatch in the world view of those in the Public (or indeed Private) sector leading the provision of services and those who use these services , this mismatch of world views can be replicated in Social Enterprises.  It does not automatically evaporate because the service is ‘under new management’ just because they claim to be a socially responsible management.

There is a danger that the Big Society could simply be seen as some sort of asset transfer process, when surely the most important resource to examine and build up is a more motivated public willing to take part, through understanding their specific values and then supporting pro-social behaviours. Public sector, third sector and private sector alike, all have a role to play here.

Jonathan Upton
is Chairman of The Campaign Company


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