“The Big Society” or “A Big Society”?

Most Council’s will have now met to set their budgets. Many will have made commitments to review services in order to make specifically totalled savings in the coming year, but may have not finalised the full detail of those savings. Thus there is still likely to be further debate to come as decisions are made to consult further over the detailed implementation of service changes. TCC is working with a number of local authorities in improving staff communications with the public in these difficult times.

In the aftermath of the budget debates, the Big Society is likely to be used as a term of both abuse and as a rallying cry for change, depending on where people stand on it. It will clearly be a contested term over the coming year.

Perhaps one of the problems is a narrative framing issue. Is the Big Society an outcome or a process, or is it trying to be both?

In other words is it “A Big Society” that one seeks to achieve, or is it “The Big Society” – a programme of action, leading to an eventual outcome? Have means and ends actually become merged under just one term?

In order to explain what it means to its critics, the government has sought to put meat on the bones of it. However is Big Society the right term for this actual process? In order to increase wider support for widely supported concepts like mutualism, are initiatives more akin to the Join the Revolution relaunch of the Co-operative this week more the nuts and bolts of the development of any form of Big Society?

Should it actually be an outcome rather than a process? Is turning it into a future aspiration actually a strength rather than a weakness? Have the media and even people in the same Party as the Prime Minister been expecting too much definition and thus contributed to the pressure to be seen to deliver the specifics on it, at a time when that is incredibly difficult?

After all it in effect started off as a slogan: “Big Society, not Big Government“. It is important to note that there was never a U.K. Government programme called “The Big Government“. Depending on ones views as to how far that concept exists or existed, such a description was surely an emergent property of specific government programmes and actions? So why should we expect the Big Society to be any more formal than the phrase Big Government?

“A Big Society, not Big Government” is therefore something that people who believe in it, might then be able to aspire to and set out their longer-term vision for, in order to make their case more amenable to those who are very likely to be sceptical after recent budget reductions.

From TCC’s understanding of values perspectives, setting out “A Big Society” vision might inspire some people to act as advocates for a wider consensus or bigger picture that more people could feel comfortable with. This might include the bottom-up co-operative mutualism rooted in local communities that I have referred to earlier.

The danger at present is the development of “The Big Society” as a process is likely to feel threatening to the values of others, thus any vision struggles with difficulty against the strong negative advocacy made against the process as a result of budget reductions at both national and local level to the voluntary sector.

There is nothing wrong with aspiring to ends. Many of our political movements from all sides of the political spectrum have developed out of shared visions for a better society. Perhaps at this stage we need more of that and less attempts to raise short-term expectations in an era when hard economic realities are bound to lead to many disappointments.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.


5 Responses to ““The Big Society” or “A Big Society”?”

  1. thecampaigncompany Says:




  2. jesssteele Says:

    I liked this piece – thoughtful and almost funny in its own search for definitions while recognising that definition-hunting is procrastination. The problem on the ground (IMHO) is the same as it ever was.

    Back in 2001 when the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal emerged after an extensive research phase which brought parts of government into contact with lots of practitioners, I thought it was superb. The ideas of ‘bending the mainstream’ (ie using all the big public money rather than the funny money associated with regeneration programmes) to ‘close the gap’ (ie make it so people in Deptford didn’t die younger than people in Blackheath) were fresh and clever and sound, but they became cliches so quickly. Why? The story I tell is of a Job Centre manager who said to us (local charity) “The Government doesn’t want your sort to exist any more, they’re going to mainstream everything.” That was the beginning of the end for ‘mainstreaming’!

    As you hint at, the NOTION of Big Society rather than a Big Society policy of any description, is opening up those debates again but it would have to be protected from all those who see it as the header on a funding bid, a cynical cuts cover-up, or a stick. This is not a question of renaming – Labour can argue over whether to call it ‘Good Society’, ‘Fair Society’ etc – the point is that civil society has been brought to political prominence to an extent unseen in peacetime since the Victorians.

    Another observation on ‘the’ or ‘a’: as a publisher why did I choose the following sub-titles ‘Turning the Tide: the history of Everyday Deptford’ and ‘Longest Journey: a Black History of Lewisham’? I’ve ruminated on this a lot but come to no useful conclusion. So perhaps it’s best to keep on calling it ‘Big Society’ in opposition to ‘Big Government’ (after all we don’t talk about ‘A Big Government’ or ‘The Big Government’)

  3. Big Society – definite or indefinite? | Spinning Plates Says:

    […] liked this piece ‘The Big Society or A Big Society’ by Charlie Mansell – thoughtful and almost […]

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

    […] 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 that values based […]

  5. Social Animals and the Bigger Society « The Campaign Company’s Blog Says:

    […] Perhaps he is recognising the difference between “means” and “ends” that we have blogged about here. A recognition of the difference is important so expectations are not raised through a wrong […]

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