Big Society: the chasm between theory and execution

CEO of ClearlySo Rodney Schwartz examines the highly controversial Big Society initiative – its origins, how it has been executed and why it has become so politically toxic.

Nobody thinks much of the Big Society programme nowadays. It is derided by the media, hated by many Tories and even David Cameron hardly mentions it. I have been writing about it for many years and have come to believe three things about it:

  1. It was fundamentally a good idea
  2. Execution has been mixed
  3. Its brand is politically complicated

Let’s remind ourselves of what it was meant to be. It was described by the Prime Minister as his “greatest passion” in his first major speech on the topic after winning the 2010 general election. He used words like “liberalism”, “empowerment”, “freedom” and “responsibility” to describe it to the public.

I would argue its key themes were reducing top-down government, encouraging community-based solutions to social problems and seeking to galvanise individuals in the service of the general welfare. Big Society programmes aimed to support charities, voluntary groups and “social enterprises” to address pressing social needs, free from the arm of central government.

At a time when the ability of citizens to pay for everything they want in the form of taxes is under severe strain, the notion that alternatives are needed seems quite uncontroversial. The idea that untapped capacity to address this lies within the goodwill of each and every one of us seems positive – and the desire to tap into it struck me as creative.

Recent press reports in Civil Society have severely criticised one embodiment of the programme: the government inspired Big Society Network, now mired in scandal (see also Liam Black’s characteristically brave blog). I came into contact with the Big Society Network once or twice, and could never quite figure out what it was meant to do (always a worry), so I cannot and will not try to explain it here, but it seems the very antithesis of Cameron’s Big Society, as articulated.  

Fuelled by government-linked funding and with a Board of Trustees for its affiliate (the Society Network Foundation) including Conservative donor Martyn Rose, chair; Giles Gibbons, the business partner of David Cameron’s former strategy chief Steve Hilton; Jonathan Brinsden and a partner at law firm Bircham Dyson Bell, this is hardly the model of a grassroots initiative.

On the other hand, a series of initiatives have helped to foster the development of an impact investment market in the UK, which aims to facilitate social innovation. There have been dozens of funds, subsidies and tax-breaks offered to those interested in growing the impact investment sector.

In the long run, frankly, I think some of the liberalising legislation enshrining the rights of citizens to act as change agents (such as the community right to bid and countless others) may have a profound effect. Facilitative legislation and work with financial regulators to encourage and ease the path have also been helpful – this is joined-up action at its best, despite stumbles, such as the Big Society Network.

What makes the Big Society so complicated to sell politically is that many see it as a fig-leaf for government budget cuts and the overzealous desire of Tories to see smaller government and a drastically shrinking state sector. In this regard the programme has been successful. Government spending to GDP is forecast to shrink from over 46% in 2009/10 to just over 40% in 2016/7. This may cheer Tories and depress the left. I suspect this was always part of the agenda, but sadly it was never openly debated or discussed because of the politics.

In my opinion, any UK government will need to preside over a declining state sector – with debt levels approaching 80% of GDP, this is inevitable. We will either experience massive social unrest or devise alternative and innovative ways to address societal problems – and impact investment has a huge role to play.  The fact that politicians may not be having a completely open debate about this is sadly predictable – the fact that certain individuals act in ways that are antithetical to the spirit of the Big Society programme just means they are hypocrites. A good idea is still a good idea.


Rodney Schwartz is CEO of ClearlySo, which raises impact investment for business, funds and charities and runs the UK’s first impact investment network, Clearly Social Angels.  

Header image: Launch of Big Society. Photo credit: Prime Minister's office