The Big Society: understanding its back-story to take practical action now!!

People are naturally asking what the Big Society means to their real lives? Too often the answer is soundbites and political argument. At best it is expressed as theory, or perhaps some examples of local volunteering.

However, in order to understand it we need to look, not just as to how it is currently defined, but also whether it represents a long-term trend in how service delivery might be developing in the context of changes over the last 30 years. In other words we also need to understand the Big Society’s back-story.

Only then can we see what we then need to put in place that goes with the grain of those long-standing trends.

This quite long and detailed posting seeks to stimulate discussion on all those issues. It certainly does not pretend to have all the answers, however it may at least explain the roots of the concept more clearly as well as set out an approach to it that could then be adopted, not just in the distant future, but in the next six months.

The Big Society – As currently defined

First of all let’s not get hung-up about the actual term. Perhaps it should be talked about in terms of an expansion of Civil Society as I recently blogged here. Indeed rather than use the words Big Society, the Government has just published a strategy for Building a Stronger Civil Society which explains that the core elements are:

1. Empowering communities: giving local councils and neighbourhoods more power to take decisions and shape their area.

2. Opening up public services: the Government’s public service reforms will enable charities, social enterprises, private companies and employee-owned co-operatives to compete to offer people high quality services;

3. Promoting social action: encouraging and enabling people from all walks of life to play a more active part in society, and promoting more volunteering and philanthropy.

What this means in reality seems to include the following so far:

  • Transparency – publishing a wide range of data sets including public expenditure and salaries of senior staff
  • Free Schools
  • A national Citizen service
  • Employee owned co-operatives with a ‘right to bid’
  • Elected Police Commissioners
  • Radically reform the planning system
  • New powers to help communities save local facilities through a right to bid
  • Train a new generation of 5000 community organisers
  • A national ‘Big Society Day’
  • Regular community involvement a key element of civil service staff appraisals
  • Devolution of powers with councils given a general power of competence and a full review of local government finance
  • Support the creation and expansion of mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises, and support these groups to have much greater involvement in the running of public services
  • Use dormant bank accounts to establish a Big Society Bank, which will provide new finance for neighbourhood groups, charities and social enterprises

Whilst the Big Society has the strong support of the government and has some public support according to polls, there is significant scepticism and some opposition.

Perhaps people need to understand the long-term trends more? That also provides an opportunity to sketch out a new model of delivery, that reflects these trends, some of which comes from helpful discussions with leading practitioners in the field from the London Sustainability Exchange.

The Big Society – Back-story

Let’s first of all examine the evolution of public services that may explain why the Big Society, or whatever one calls it, is the logical culmination of existing trends in society.

The Traditional Welfare State

Figure 1: Traditional Welfare State

Figure 1 is a simple model that was up to 30 years ago the traditional form of the local public sector, with commissioning and delivery often residing in the same organisation. End users got what they were given and had little say in the provision of service. This reflected the values of the time. Over 70% of the population held Sustenance driven values with a strong respect for those in various forms of authority told them, from health and education professionals through to retired colonels through to shop stewards, depending who you might interact with most.

The Current State

Figure 2: The current Commissioning/Delivery/End User model

Over the last 30 years, as Figure 2 shows that the boundary between commissioner and deliverer has developed and become very distinctive as a result of CCT, Best Value and other commissioning initiatives. Whilst some co-production has evolved as well, in the main the end-user is still often seen as a passive consumer and thus also there remains a clear boundary between them and the providers.

The Future Big Society

Figure 3: The future - Delivery/End User Co-production

What the Big Society in effect proposes (Figure 3) is instead of the two boundaries there will be just one single boundary between commissioners and an increasing combination of provider/end-user delivery in various forms of co-production. This is the logical evolution of processes that have been developing over the last 30 years. Some of this is driven by things such as technology and education as well as politics and economics.

We would also, perhaps more controversially, argue that it also reflects a shift in values. Those values mean people do want more choice, purpose and autonomy in their lives and public services need to fulfill those changing needs and values. This is what the Big Society could address. I’m not sure even its own authors have framed the debate in those terms yet?

However, whilst the inner directed will participate and highly motivated outer directed people will seize opportunities that arise, places with a higher than average level of Sustenance driven people are likely to see the disappearance of certainty that will occur with the end of one boundary as a potential threat to their lives. Thus as well as motivating those who want to take part, one also has to segment and reassure those who are likely to be fearful, before it turns into hostility. Reassurance is actually as important as participation at this early stage, in order to make it easier to change behaviour to greater participation later. This is clearly not being addressed at all at present.

In the old system there were clearly defined roles with the local authority at one end and the end-user at the other. Everyday folk who weren’t ‘users’ were just excluded unless they received services.

In the future Big Society everyone is potentially involved. Services users and everyone else. How does that new model work?

  • There would be social enterprises owned by the community to support people micro businesses, or time banks . This could be a network of some scale if the will is there to develop it immediately.
  • Statutory funded services may be delivered primarily by user led organisations and micro businesses – they will deliver  some services. These mini businesses will be owned by the people who use them. This ownership will have to conform to a model and meet minimum standards.
  • Where there isn’t statutory need (ie where people cannot automatically get services) Time banks would enable people to still access services. Some people will donate time to work in the community and this needs to be far better enabled than at present.

Starting to make it happen….by March 2011?

Figure 4: A new operating model

If the need for urgency is to be addressed that model (figure 4) needs to be made concrete, sooner rather than later. The Spending Review of 20 October may not be popular, nationally or locally, but one cannot simply ignore it or just be reactive to it. There is a need for local authorities to be seen as to be on the side of their community in a proactive way in these difficult times.

In the end all the improved communication in the world will count for nought, if the behaviour of the Council is to then to do little in response to the changes. If good words are not matched by deeds, then trust is hard to establish.

Therefore an urgent and practical action could be the establishment of an “enabling social enterprise” for the local authority as a signal of its intent to act now!

The organisation could be based on existing voluntary sector models, or more of a voluntary/private sector partnership business to inject the additional urgency and innovation that may be required in the next 6 months. Such a business could be set up in weeks to respond to the current financial pressures. This organisation would be charged with creating and supporting user led organisations, micro businesses and time-banks that establish and maintain services which are consistent with the needs of the people within the local community. The questions any local authority needs to ask this coming month as it develops it budget plans for 2011, are:

  • Do they have a voluntary sector with the energy and local capacity to take on that role instantly?
  • Is that voluntary sector naturally suspicious of the changes and feel “they already deliver this”?

If the answers to these questions are not positive at present, a local authority with very little time to deliver savings, provide services and respond to new government initiatives is going to have to act fast.

A single enabling social enterprise that is described here could act as a commissioning hub and market place for commissioners to relate to, resource support and a vehicle for knowledge transfer for organisations and individuals who are involved in receiving or providing services.

The exact structure of the social enterprise and the pace at which it is created would be determined through quite urgent local consultation. There is of course the potential of the overarching social enterprise being constituted as a provider cooperative, though that might only secure enough early capital to operate in a few places.

Although the social enterprise will deliver hard resources – training, coaching, templates – it will also focus on the creation of a self-sustaining, local authority wide network. This would build on existing work on personalisation and volunteering. It would support these individuals within the community who have the ability to act as hubs who can promote and cascade the informal learning, support and mentoring that is necessary for the project to succeed. This peer-to peer approach is effective in both cost and embedding a change in behaviour such as taking greater control of services. This approach encourages powerful social learning through observation.

The fundamental aim would be to use the commissioning framework to support local communities to set up micro businesses, co-production schemes and time-banks.  Many local authority staff who are voluntarily leaving in the next few months, may still want to be valued as a trusted volunteer or might want to create a micro-business.

Whatever external support is brought in, it would still involve finding a locally based partner who is already embedded within the community and building on their capacity to engage individuals to participate in a proactive time-bank system.

That new social enterprise would achieve value for money through:

  • charging for services that it provides to micro businesses, user led organisations and time banks;
  • applying for funding from statutory, private and third sector bodies as well as individuals to fund projects and developments;
  • exploiting the network which will be a rich source of knowledge, information and experiential data;

As well as the structures to enable people to take advantage of the opportunities, there is also the need for an integrated behaviour change strategy to ensure that every part of the community is motivated to play its play its part in developing, delivering, owning, managing or supporting the new services

When it comes to behaviour change, two strands – ability and motivation –  are interrelated, interdependent and underpin the goal of creating vibrant community inspired services that delivers those services holistically from first point of need and into statutory funded provision. Other earlier blog postings have covered the difference between ability and motivation in more detail. Too often public bodies have strong framework for nurturing people’s ability, but none for helping develop individual and community motivation.

A seriously supported Timebank at local level could ensure:

  • The skills, time and contributions of all members of the community will be equally valued; the time being shared will be identified by and for the community to ensure participation and  legacy;
  • Facilitate a comprehensive social marketing  and behaviour change campaign: to increase participation in social enterprises and establish a platform for micro-business development;
  • Help amplify the advocacy element of local groups, strengthen community infrastructure, improve cohesion and galvanise active citizenship (as a segue to employment opportunities);

Local Councillors could also be given a role in being a local public face of local timebanks –  a local manifestation of the Big Society and social entrepreneurialism.

Conclusion – The Fierce Urgency of Now!

Establishing an organisation should not take a long time. A private not for profit could be established and registered in a month or two if the will is there. The current financial opportunity provides the opportunity to create some urgency to drive change forward rapidly. This requires a clear timeline and milestones.

The current system of public services delivery will continue to evolve and the Big Society is one way to describe it. Fundamentally for social entrepreneurship to succeed it needs the development of social enterprises to send the message that it is a highly valued social activity that the whole community should be proud of. Developing a strong local social enterprise, absolutely identified as that local authority’s social enterprise to support and develop others would visibly demonstrate a behaviour that will match all the words a local authority will publicly express on this subject in the coming months.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company. I am grateful to my TCC colleagues Gwilym Morris and Kevin Huggins-Cooper for some of the initial thoughts that led to the development of this more detailed posting.


7 Responses to “The Big Society: understanding its back-story to take practical action now!!”

  1. Rich Says:

    This idea has been suggested already and has been writte about in some detail only recently at a party conference event I was at – it may be worth you contacting the author of this report, Asheem Singh:

  2. Alan Williams Says:

    We established a timebanking scheme in Huddersfield, working together, building a membership of individuals (many of whom used social care services) as well as community associations and organisations. Initially one organisational member, United Response, solely funded the project latterly they partly fund, host and manage the coordination of the project in partnership with Newsome Community Forum which involves significant voluntary participation of local councillors.

    Our work began in 2007 it took a full year before we saw the first exchanges. We learned early on to stop talking about a “timebank” and talk instead of “timebanking”. Timebanking is a tool not an end in itself. Its potential contribution to the Big Society will not be realised if it’s perceived as a separate strand of activity burdening the existing voluntary sector or a new service model to replace those being cut.

    The practice of timebanking could become part of the infra-structure between health, housing and social care organisations and community associations as well as business enterprises. Allowing each to coproduce its aims with their various clients and supporting each other to do so. Timebanking is based on a simple set of principles which means it can be practiced by agencies and enterprises as well as on a neighbourhood level.

  3. Peter Roberts Says:

    I am involved with the Islington Time Bank Network. This is a page I added to our website yesterday:

    Read the last but one paragraph. When you say that new social enterprises would charge a time bank for the services it provides, are you talking money or time credits?

    Are you suggesting the current Broker model should be replaced by people working for a social enterprise that is not based in the community and does not share the same values?

    This is facinating stuff but I was a wee bit stunned when I hit the phrase, “need for an integrated behaviour change strategy”. Anyone using co-production knows that professionals have to stop thinking they are the only experts whose opinions matter and somehow hold ‘the solutions’. They also need a good slap round the head each time they talk about consultation instead of co-producing services. I wonder quite how you want to change the behaviour of the rest of us though.

  4. The state of Public Involvement in the Big Society era « The Campaign Company’s Blog Says:

    […] who will know doubt note this report’s contents. We have blogged here, here,  here,  here and here about the communications challenges the Big Society faces. We would also argue […]

  5. Cirujano Plastico Monterrey Says:

    Cirujano Plástico…

    The Big Society: understanding its back-story to take practical action now!! « The Campaign Company’s Blog…

  6. Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight Team sets out its work « The Campaign Company’s Blog Says:

    […] helping people’ exchanges through new institutions and complementary currencies. TCC is working in this area to improve support in local communities to enable  people to use timebanks to help with care of […]

  7. Marcus Says:


    […]The Big Society: understanding its back-story to take practical action now!! « The Campaign Company’s Blog[…]…

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