The Big Society audited – and failing?

My analysis of Civil Exchange’s audit of the Big Society is on Progress Online web site. Here it is:

The recently published ‘big society audit’ is the first major independent attempt to measure how far, in practice, a genuine transfer of power from government to civil society has taken place in the two years since the term emerged as a theme for the coalition government. In short, the report concludes, it is disappointing: there is a strong sense of action and rhetoric being completely disengaged from each other.

The report was brought together by Caroline Slocock of Civil Exchange. As a former senior civil servant, charity worker and chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission her credentials are impeccable. She judges the ‘big society’ on the very criteria on which it invites itself to be judged: community empowerment, Opening up public services and social action, and finds it wanting.

Crucially, she says:

‘The audit identifies a “big society gap” in levels of trust, engagement and social action between the most disadvantaged and affluent, urban and rural communities and younger and older people. This will make it difficult for those communities to take up the initiatives being offered to them. Most worryingly, public services delivered by voluntary organisations in disadvantaged areas are more likely to be at risk from public sector cuts.’

So, where communities do possess the capacity, will, determination and experience to influence or deliver services then the chances are that the ‘big society’ will succeed. Elsewhere, the odds are not good because the government’s systems of delivering the ‘big society’ reinforce those contrasts rather than tackle them. Even the recent funding stream called ‘Transforming Local Infrastructure’ seems to be targeted on areas where the infrastructure is viable and promising rather than on more dysfunctional communities.

The ideals of the ‘big society’ are accepted as universal. Indeed, the report is peppered with quotes from Tony Blair (‘active communities’) and Gordon Brown (‘civic renewal’) which anticipated this later prevailing mood.

The message is clear. There is an appetite for local involvement and a sense of community is growing – perhaps this Dunkirk spirit is recession-linked? – while the voluntary sector enjoys high levels of support and trust. The sector can deliver services with flexibility and in a cost-effective manner but it cannot do it alone. Public services can be improved and made more sustainable through partnerships with the third sector but they must be properly funded and recognise of the complementary nature of the sectors. As Slocock says, left to its own devices the voluntary sector,

‘… lacks sufficient capacity or will to bring together its many disparate members to create a collective vision and goals for a stronger civil society. But even if it did, it might be difficult for it communicate with the many different parts of central and local government.’

Perhaps the biggest challenge to the dream is the lack of coordination of government initiatives, the report tells us. The ‘big society’ is a long way away. It will not deliver its big ideals while the public sector is in a state of siege and key parts of the voluntary sector feel abandoned.

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Tom Levitt is former MP for High Peak and writes a monthly Third Sector column for Progress