Press Release, 20 January 2015



The Big Society project to hand power back to the people has largely failed against its own measures, leaving the country more divided, with less influence over decisions and receiving less accountable services, according to a landmark study published today.

Whose Society? The Final Big Society Audit, the culmination of a three-year investigation into a key initiative of the Coalition Government, finds that the Big Society – using its own criteria of empowering communities, opening up public services and stimulating social action – has not, despite some positive initiatives, delivered the radical change that David Cameron promised.

The study by the independent think tank Civil Exchange sounds a warning for the next government, saying that it must be genuinely inclusive, target those most in need and harness the energy of the voluntary and private sectors if the Big Society mistakes are not to be repeated.

The report’s author, Caroline Slocock, director of Civil Exchange, said:

“Despite investment in the Big Society, it has largely failed. Our findings show that society is more divided than before, we feel less able to influence what happens in our communities and public services are, in some ways, less accountable and responsive to diverse needs.

“Many people may ask what happened to the Big Society? It was a key commitment of this government and they are entitled to know whether it worked, even though the Government hardly mentions it now.

“The real question, however, is what happens next? Whatever name it goes under, the next government will continue to look for ways to give power back to people, to make services more responsive and to encourage local action. To do this successfully requires much better collaboration with local and voluntary groups, giving people a genuine stake in local decision making, reviewing the way we contract companies to deliver public services and making sure major businesses give back more to society.”

Whose Society? makes key recommendations for the next government including a shift in government and public sector culture to make it work far more collaboratively with civil society, a civil society led Commission on using existing resources to create a fairer society, and a major review of public sector contracting, ensuring services work in the interests of those they mean to serve, particularly those whose needs are greatest.

Using detailed analysis and data from a wide range of government and other authoritative sources, Whose Society? finds that, despite significant investment in Big Society schemes, including for volunteering and local decision making:

  • Only 34% of people now feel they can influence decision in their local area – a significant decrease against every year since 2001.
  • Civic participation (from 41% to 30%) has dropped sharply since 2013, with civic consultation and activism also down.
  • Despite over 2000 uses of Community Rights since the introduction of the Localism Act (2011), local authorities have seen their powers to respond to local need, such as in education, severely constrained.
  • The proportion of people who feel they belong to their neighbourhood has dropped from 78% to 70% since 2013, the lowest level since 2005.
  • Though 88% of charities have seen a rise in demand for their services, only 32% now feel they can meet this need and there is no convincing Government strategy for filling the funding gap left by public sector cuts, particularly for those serving communities with the greatest needs.
  • Far from opening up public services, private sector “quasi monopolies”, which are largely unaccountable, and the largest of which have experienced serious service failures, now dominate contracts to deliver public services.

E n d s

Notes to editors:

  1. Whose Society? The Final Big Society Audit reviews what has been happening against key Big Society commitments made by this Government, and draws on a wide range of research and other sources to present a unique and comprehensive audit. It is the third in a series, with the previous one being published in December 2013.
  2. For a copy of the report, interviews with the author and further information, please contact:  Daniel Harris on 0207 793 4035 or 07989 309058
  3. Civil Exchange is an independent think tank established to strengthen civil society’s connection to government.  The report is produced in collaboration with DHA, a policy and communications agency specialising in social change; and is supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, a Quaker trust that seeks to transform the world by supporting people addressing the root causes of conflict and injustice and the Barrow Cadbury Trust, an independent charitable foundation, committed to bringing about socially just change.