The Big Society Audit 2013 looks beyond the rhetoric of this controversial policy to find out what’s been happening in practice. There are some positives but also a large gap between actions and words, particularly in relation to public services.
Across the country, communities are taking control of their own assets, from shops, to pubs, libraries and even piers. Voluntary and community organisations continue to inspire huge amounts of public support. Councils are also forming new partnerships in communities to tackle deep social problems. But in the reform of public services, it is largely the private sector to which the Government has turned, although large companies have recently come under fire for the way they run those services. At the same time, many specialist and local voluntary organisations that help address the symptoms of a socially and economically divided society are being left out in the cold. Deep questions are also being asked about just how accountable and responsive key public services are, as they demonstrate financial efficiency but show a lack of basic care.
The Big Society is also a deeply divided one, with cuts in public services hitting disabled and people living in poverty the hardest and trust – the glue that brings the Big Society together – failing to bind disadvantaged communities.
The Big Society is one of the Coalition Government’s big political ideas, launched with many good intentions and followed by numerous initiatives. Although some have declared it dead, it isn’t going away. Not only has it spawned many new initiatives with real impact on the ground. Many people – politicians, senior business men, religious leaders and civil society itself – are also continuing to turn to civil society as a positive force for social change at a time when trust in other key institutions has declined.
The Big Society Audit focuses on three key strands identified by the Government as key to its delivery when it was launched: community empowerment, opening up public services and social action.
It calls for a new model for public services that draws on the specific strengths of the voluntary sector and volunteers, particularly in local communities, alongside that of the private sector. It recommends more investment in early action and in the social infrastructure that supports disadvantaged groups and communities. It also points out that the Big Society is also relevant to business, not just through corporate social responsibility, but as a way of embedding ethical principles into how business is conducted, especially when delivering public services. Finally, it calls for increased public sector understanding of the potential of the voluntary sector though more joint working, more interchange and joint development, and designing of services collaboratively.
Here is a a copy of the Executive Summary and the press release and a selection of the coverage and reactions: Patrick Butler in the Guardian; Caroline Slocock, blogging in the Guardian;Third Sector; Charity Times and Civil Society, Ekklesia, Public Sector Executive and LocalGov.
The Big Society Audit is supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Barrow Cadbury Trust.
The 2012 Audit is available here.