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Andrew Haldenby: Building the Big Society

Andrew Haldenby is the Director of Reform

Screen shot 2011-04-01 at 16.24.01 Yesterday Reform brought together 170 people to discuss "Building the Big Society" (twitter feed #reformbigsoc).  The event aimed to shed light on this powerful idea and to understand better how to achieve it in practice.  Oliver Letwin (Minister for Government Policy), Bernard Jenkin (Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, which has just launched an inquiry into the Big Society), Jesse Norman (MP for Hereford and author of "The Big Society"), and Roberta Blackman-Wood (Shadow Minister for Civil Society) were the Parliamentary speakers.

What I felt we learnt was:

  • Local Government is at the heart of the Government’s thinking.  Oliver Letwin described the Big Society in three examples: the shift in the Localism Bill to give councils much wider powers to act; the decentralisation of planning decisions to lower tiers of local government; and a village shop in his constituency manned by volunteers.
  • The Government believes in liberalising public services and paying for results in order to achieve what Oliver Letwin called an “open texture”. But the Government has to decide whether the Big Society means a competition in public service delivery or a greater use of charitable providers.  What has happened by default is that the Big Society has become seen as a vehicle for greater use of charities, and as a result, every charity that loses any government funding for any reason is seen as a blow against the idea.  Both Patrick Butler (of the Guardian) and Matthew Taylor (CEO of the RSA) said that the phrase “Big Society” had become “toxic”, partly for this reason.  But if the Big Society means greater competition, as it should, then it will be judged on the outcomes of public services rather than the size of any particular sector.
  • For-profit companies are already delivering the Big Society.  Clive Barton, Corporate Affairs Director of Serco, explained that the company delivers public services with a supply chain including charities and SMEs.  Andrew Wates (Director) said that Wates Group organises volunteering for all of their staff and has started to commission some services from social enterprises.  Ali Parsa (CEO) argued the advantages of employee-owned organisations such as his own, Circle, in terms of both ethics and efficiency. Clifford Chance, who hosted the conference at their offices in Canary Wharf, do a significant amount of pro bono legal work and also encourage staff to volunteer in local community projects.
  • The Big Society needs finance. We heard about some exciting innovations – from Social Finance, Bridges Ventures and more – particularly in finding market solutions to social problems. The difficulty is that in relative terms the sums of money for financing social projects are dwarfed by those in mainstream financial services.  A programme for Big Society that brought in new entrants with credible business plans would draw the attention of billions, not millions, from the capital markets.
  • The Big Society means a smarter government which commissions services effectively, termed a “Bold Government” by Rob Brown of PA Consulting. He said that government needs to work harder to create markets rather than providing services.
There were two spontaneous rounds of applause.  Bernard Jenkin said that the speakers were overcomplicating things and that the Big Society must mean smaller government.  Pascale Scheurer, a parent setting up a Free School in Hackney, responded to one speaker’s assertion that Free Schools would require “hit squads of civil servants”.  She argued that Free Schools should not seek intensive government support.  Their freedom means that they can solve a problem - too few good school places - that has been beyond government.

Matthew Taylor argued that the Government should abandon the use of the phrase until it had some actual results to show for it.  I thought this was a bit negative given that every single person at the conference, including Roberta Blackman-Wood, supported the Big Society values of diversity in public services and greater social capital. The Government’s problem is that it has allowed the term to become equated with more contracts for charities instead of greater competition in public services.


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