Tag Archives: big society

Your Square Mile misses 3 million membership target by 2,999,860

When the then leader of the opposition, David Cameron, launched The Big Society in his 2009 Hugo Young lecture it seemed like he (or, at least, his adviser Steve Hilton) had hit on a really good idea.

On the one hand, it was an attempt to slay the ghost of Margaret Thatcher’s much quoted assertion that there was ‘no such thing as society’, on the other it was a radical critique of the growth the state under New Labour.

Cameron key point was that while Blair and Brown had spent huge amounts of money, inequality had actually increased. His new improved Tories cared about growing poverty and inequality but offered a positive alternative to Labour’s approach of chucking just chucking money at the problem.

In his lecture Cameron rejected calls from ‘some on the centre-right’ for big spending cuts saying: “Our alternative to big government is the big society. But we understand that the big society is not just going to spring to life on its own: we need strong and concerted government action to make it happen.

Disastrous civil society mutual, Your Square Mile, is one the most glaring examples of the extent to which a good idea has degenerated into a politically embarrassing breeding programme for white elephants.

In this particular case, a key part of the problem was that while The Big Society was a good idea, Your Square Mile was a phenomenally bad one. The plan to set up the ‘largest mutual in the UK’ to be (to the extent it is clear even now) a sort of umbrella group for active citizens who would set up groups in their local area (their square mile) and share ideas with and get support from other members the mutual.  Membership of the mutual was/is £10 per year and benefits included insurance for volunteers and discounts on printing flyers for community events.

Essentially, Your Square Mile received £830,000 from the Big Lottery Fund to tell people that they could do some stuff in their local area if they wanted to, and that they could pay £10 to be part of a national group of other people who were also doing some stuff in their local area.

As Civil Society reports, Your Square Mile had a target of 3million members and has successful signed up 140, a shortfall of just 2,999,860. It has received an average lottery subsidy per member of £5,928.

I first came across Your Square Mile’s CEO, Paul Twivy, at Unltd’s Shine Unconference in 2010, when he was a leading figure in what is now the Big Society Network.

Twivy’s contribution to the event was memorable because he was absolutely beside himself with anger at the Labour Party for mocking the idea of the Big Society in the 2010 general election campaign. He was unable to understand why people with differing political views couldn’t just come together and support what he regarded as an apolitical vision designed to make the UK a better place.

It’s difficult to know how much appetite there is in the UK for a national organisation with no connection to any particular political or religious belief system, local community, community of interest, type of activity or type of organisation, set up to support the abstract concept of doing good stuff in a general sense.

Twivy believes that Your Square Mile failed because the government didn’t support it enough, saying in relation to the membership figures: “The original forecast was made against a background of Your Square Mile being the government’s flagship community project for their Big Society vision.  However, the government have not contributed a single pound to YSM, nor marketed its presence even on their Downing Street and Cabinet Office websites.

My guess is that the opposite is the case. If I was planning to start a national network of people just doing good stuff, the unequivocal starting point would have to be that it wasn’t directly associated with one of the most controversial policy ideas of the government of the day.

Whichever party happens to be in power, many of the most passionate advocates of positive social action are people who don’t support that government and, while most will be happy to be involved in government funded activity, very few will be keen to be associated with a project whose success might reasonably be seen as a direct endorsement of that government’s ideological position.

This is one of the reasons (amongst several others) why the Big Society idea has gradually disappeared from the political discourse – it had reached the point where it was active barrier to the government’s attempts to work with ‘civil society’ to tackle the challenges it rightly identified.

But even without the Big Society label, those continuing attempts don’t currently about to the ‘strong and concerted government action’ promised in 2009. The key political question posed by the Big Society – ‘how do we meet growing social needs with decreasing resources?’ – remains as potent as ever.

Some small scale answers are emerging but the overall answer (if there is one) remains elusive although, thanks to £830,000 worth of Your Square Mile, we can now eliminate ‘offering community activists 20% printing to advertise their events’ from our enquiries.


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Social enterprises bigger and growing more slowly, profits dwarfed by subsidies

Social enterprises are getting bigger, they’re growing more slowly than last year and they still receive eight times as much income in grants and donations as they generate in profits. Those are the three key messages from this RBS SE100 index.

The SE100  is a list of the top 100 fasted growing established social enterprises – those that have been trading for three years or more – with separate awards for those organisations that are best at demonstrating social impact and newcomers trading for less than three years. It’s generated from a self-selecting but pretty big, in depth, sample of UK social enterprises, carried out behalf of Matter & Co, formerly publishers of Social Enterprise magazine, now running new social innovation website, Pioneers Post.

365 organisations participated in the survey this year, an 11% drop compared last year’s 409. It’s difficult to say conclusively whether or not this means there are fewer social enterprises operating in the UK than there were this time last year but it does suggest that there’s been a drop in the number of social enterprises who identify positively with the social enterprise movement to the extent that they want to participate in this kind of survey.

More important is the drop in the average % growth amongst the SE100, down 31% from last year’s 91% to 60%. This isn’t actually bad news at all because the total turnover of this year’s SE100 is £319.4million, an 85% increase on last year’s £172.5million. It only seems like bad news because, in previous years, a lot has been made of the massive increases in turnover generated by some extremely small companies. If the SE100 are delivering positive social change, and the organisations on the list that I know definitely are, then £319.4 million worth of positive social change seems better than £172.5million worth.

Interestingly, though, with this year’s total income amongst participants in down at £778 million compared to last year’s £844million, the average turnover of participants who didn’t make the top 100 has dropped from £2.17 million in 2011 to £1.73 in 2012, a drop of over 20%. That suggests that while larger social enterprises are weathering the current economic storm – and possibly benefitting from opportunities to secure newly avaiable public sector contracts – things aren’t going quite so well for social enterprises lower down the food chain.

The most shocking figures, though, relate to a situation that hasn’t got worse but has become far more relevant based on the changes to the ways social enterprises are funded. This year, enterprises participating in the survey generated total profits of £19million between them on a turnover £778 million: “with average income from trading (as opposed to grants or fundraising) at 80%.

This seemingly means that SE100 participants collectively received grants and donations worth £155.6million. That’s more than 8 times their total profits of £19million. So, for every ONE POUND PROFIT that social enterprises currently generate to reinvest in the community, they’re current receiving EIGHT POUNDS IN SUBSIDIES. That may even be a conservative estimate of the total subsidy because it’s not clear whether the £19million profit figure was arrived at by subtracting participants’ overall losses from total profits to get the total, or by adding together the profits of all participants who made a profit and ignoring the losses.

It’s important to recognise that this doesn’t mean that they aren’t some social enterprises that are making real profits and receiving no subsidy at all. There are. Unfortunately, though, if the SE100 is anything to go by there aren’t very many. It’s also important to recognise that many of the grants that social enterprises aren’t subsidies in the way that privatised rail companies receive subsidies. Many of the grants that social enterprises receive are funding for them to do work, with delivery-related strings attached that make them remarkably similar to contracts for all purposes other than taxation.

Even so, if I were a leading figure in the world of social investment, the stats wouldn’t fill me with confidence about my chances supporting the development of a £1billion+ industry of investment in social ventures generating enough profit to repay investments with interest while generating a social outcome. Based on our current position, the most likely scenarios would seem to be:

(a) we don’t see the development of £1billion+ social investment industry.

(b) we see a new set of social enterprises/social businesses/social ventures (delete as appropriate) emerging over the next five years that operate in a very different way to the ones we have now.

(c) we see lots of social investment being repaid based on either direct or indirect subsidy from grants and donations.

Scenario (a) doesn’t really matter either way to anyone who isn’t a cabinet office minister or an employee of Big Society Capital. (b) + (c) both have serious implications (not necessarily wholly negative) for the social enterprise movement and civil society in a broader sense. If social investment is going to reshape the social enterprise world in its image, the process is unlikely to be pretty.


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Can’t see the fig leaves for the smokescreen

To Northampton last Monday for Seminar 1 in a series of seminars collectively known as Reconstructing Social Enterprise. The aim of the series is: ‘to establish a multidisciplinary group of international academics and practitioners approaching the field of social enterprise from a critical yet sympathetic perspective’.

Alongside a series of interesting academic presentations, the practitioner contributing to the seminar was Andy Benson, Director of the National Coalition for Independent Action (NCIA) and his presentation ‘Social enterprise as a smokescreen for the Privatisation of Public Services’ did something at least roughly approximate to what it said on the tin.

Benson provided a considered and articulate outline of the view that the privatisation of public services is a bad thing in general, and the involvement of the voluntary sector in marketisation of public service delivery is particularly bad for the voluntary sector itself, as well for the people who depend on it. The NCIA, he explained, encouraged resistance to state co-option of the sector and ‘private sector entryism’ into public service provision.

Although, Benson began by saying his response to the term social enterprise was “I spit on it”, he went on to explain that he had no problem with many socially enterprising activities including: local communities running shops and pubs, charities carrying out trading activities to fund their work, commercial businesses delivering a social benefit (I imagine with some form of social ownership) and private sector businesses with a social purpose.  He did object the Big Society idea that public services could be cut and replaced by local people providing services on a voluntary basis – a position many people in the social enterprise movement share.

Ultimately, the only type of actual social enterprise activity Benson was objecting to was – unsurprisingly –  social enterprises and large charities delivering services previously delivered  by the public sector. He slammed big charities such as Turning Point who had “morphed from grant receivers to trading and contracting enterprises”. He also laid into umbrella bodies (in general) for “promoting business values as an alternative to public services” before going on to describe NCVO specifically as an “absolutely outrageous turncoat organisation”, partly because it has organised a workshop called “how to turn a free service into a paid-for service”.

For Benson and the NCIA the proper role of the voluntary sector was primarily about campaigning and innovative local activities which, if they successfully became a service, could be taken on by the public sector. And the overall conclusion was that the Big Society was “a fig leaf to obscure the message of giving up on public services and public subsidy” and that social enterprise was “a smokescreen to describe the outsourcing agenda”.

Clearly this is a world view that benefits from being uncomplicated:

  • Who should deliver public services? Public sector agencies employing public sector workers.
  • Who should be able to use public services? The public.
  • How should public services be paid for? Through taxes. Public sector agencies are not businesses, they are bodies that are given money and then spend it on doing good.
  • What public services should people get? What their national and local elected representatives decide they should get.

This world view also benefits from being grounded in compassion, the belief that the role of the state is to ensure the people have equal access to services that meet their social needs.

Unfortunately, it’s a policy position that doesn’t really lead anywhere other than a defence of the public sector status quo, whatever that may be at the time. The fact that a service is currently being delivered by a public sector agency is not, it itself, a strong argument for it continuing to be delivered (a) at all or (b) by that public sector agency. With or without cuts, people’s needs and priorities change. A group of people with mental health difficulties who need somewhere to meet, don’t necessarily need a day centre staffed by council staff.

Few of us in the social enterprise movement would argue that a reduction in social spending by the state is a good thing in itself but many of us do think we need a different kind of state. Based on the conventional shareholder capitalist model, markets often fail to meet what most people in the UK regard as fundamental social needs. But having accepted that starting point, there’s a philosophical and practical divide between those who believe we should respond to market failure primarily by eliminating markets, and those who believe we can and should respond to market failure by making conventional markets better and creating different markets.

Andy Benson and his colleagues at NCIA may not object to the elements of social enterprise that are about making conventional markets better – by building and supporting businesses that build in social value, by creating jobs for people who’d otherwise find it harder to get them or, in the case of co-operatives, actively sharing wealth amongst workers and customers.

But many is social enterprise also see a role for markets in the public services – through bidding for contracts, personal budgets or through starting organisations that both tackle social need and work as businesses, or a voluntary organisations that aren’t dependent on ongoing state funding. The latter definitely isn’t easy to achieve but the aspiration that groups of people – either locally or based on shared needs – should find ways of solving social problems or managing ongoing social needs is a positive one.

Amongst the options for meeting social needs not met by the conventional market are:

  1. a public service delivered by public sector workers
  2. no service
  3. a public service delivered by outsourced providers
  4. finding alternatives ways to meet that social need more effectively

Realistically, in the current climate, all these options are going to employed to some extent in the UK over the next few years. Social enterprises and social entrepreneurs will have some role to play in delivering option 3 but, hopefully, a bigger role to play in delivering option 4.


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How do we scale down?

If you run a social enterprise, or a charity that bids for public contracts, you may be thinking that it’s about time you started to scale up. The number of people in politics and ‘intermediary’ organisations that want you to scale up your social venture is far greater than the number of people who care what your social venture is or does.

It’s an interesting progression from the situation in the 2005 – 2009 period, when the number of social enterprise consultants helping people to write business plans vastly exceeded the number of social entrepreneurs with a viable plan for a business. So, there is now a growing artificial market primarily focused on not scaling up the viable social ventures that weren’t started then.

Unfortunately, while the government in particular is artificially stimulating the market for people to help companies get bigger, it has been simultaneously shrinking the markets that most social enterprises and contract-focused charities would be most likely to trade in, in order to get bigger – partly through cutting public spending in general and partly through spending money in ways that favour massive private outsourcing companies rather than social enterprises.

Whatever our views on particular government policies, though, most of us would accept that – whichever parties end up in power – for the foreseeable future there will be less money in the overall social pot. For that reason, it’s a shame that there’s been so much emphasis on helping organisations to scale up and so little support and advice for organisations who are forced to scale down.

The  story of Wiltshire Mind has been prominent in the voluntary sector world this week. The charity lost its core funding from the local council in 2010 and, according to Third Sector, its approach since then has been: “The charity also sold one of its offices, applied for a variety of grants and set up a funding arm, Friends of Wiltshire Mind, to try to bolster its finances. The latest published accounts show the charity’s income was £89,792 in 2010/11 and its spending was £191,379.

And the current situation is: “Wiltshire Mind employs 10 staff and receives support from about 13 volunteers. The charity runs eight groups that provide support to almost 100 people.

There are situations where it does make sense for a business to spend twice as much in a year of trading as it brings in – the launch of this now profitable free magazine being an example – but, from the varied but limited information available, this doesn’t seem like one of them.

Whether or not it’s entirely true in this case, there are many organisations around the UK who’ve responded to the challenge of having what they regard as ‘their funding’ cut by throwing absolutely everything they’ve got into trying to continue to deliver the same services, with the same number of paid staff but without the income.  In some cases because they’re fighting to get ‘their funding’ back. In other cases because they’re trying to raise similar amounts of money from other sources.

While the Old Testament stories of Moses may have a lot to teach us, it’s unlikely that the story of his adoption – where the baby Moses is set adrift in a basket on the Nile by his mother and ultimately adopted by the Pharoah’s daughter – was intended to be interpreted by charity trustees and social enterprises directors as a business strategy. Moses’ mother didn’t have any other options and the positive result was so gloriously unlikely that at least three major religions are still talking about thousands of years later.

Unfortunately, plenty of charities and social enterprises are effectively pursuing the approach of putting their organisations in the river and hoping that a public sector agency, grant-making trust or corporate sponsor will miraculously come along and fish them out.

The point is not that it’s wrong – when faced with funding cuts – to approach public sector bodies, trusts and anyone else who may be interested and make clear to them what will be lost if your services have to stop and what will be gained if they support you to enable those services to continue. It’s the right thing to do but, once that hasn’t worked, it is wrong to just repeat the same approach over and over again until you run out of reserves (or worse).

When faced with a situation where some of your income streams are reduced or no longer available, it’s vitally important to stop and consider what your organisation’s for – who you’re there to help, what outcomes you’re meant to be achieving – and then explore all available options for doing that sustainably.

Unless they’re specifically involved in delivering supported work placements, charities and social enterprises do not exist to preserve the employment of their existing staff team for as long as possible. Most of us, as trustees and directors, do want to keep our staff in work – and that’s a legitimate position  – but it’s vitally important to separate that intention from the vision and mission of the organisation. That’s easier said than done. From a personal point of view, the honourable intention to keep staff in post has been the single factor most likely to lead to wrong decisions being taken or, more often, right decisions being idiotically postponed.

That’s not to say that a better approach for organisations who lose funding is to just make everyone redundant and go home. The point to find different ways to do things you exist to do and help the people you exist to help.

In the case of a local mental health charity that loses funding the key question to ask at that point is not:  ‘how can we preserve our existing services?’ but ‘what can we do to help our members and other people with mental health difficulties in our area?’

The right answers would depend on the combination of what members and people with mental health difficulties want and the money available to pay for those things. It’s seems unlikely that, in most cases, the only two choices are: (a) get a set amount to provide a particular set of existing services or (b) close.

I don’t know enough about the specific situation of Wiltshire Mind to know the extent that this applies to them but, in a general sense, if an organisation has £100,000 to spend on temporarily preserving unfunded services for a year, it has £20,000 a year (subsidy not total income) to spend over five years supporting members to do stuff for themselves.

Scaling down properly isn’t easy but it’s just as important as scaling up. In the social enterprise sector, we’ve seen several regional and national support organisations close or dramatically reduce their activities very suddenly rather than move to new, more sustainable ways of working.

Sometimes there isn’t always a new, more sustainable model to be found and, in other cases, there is no longer a need for the services that organisations have been providing but as organisations dedicated to delivering positive social  change, it’s vitally important that we keep on putting creative and enterprise into achieving our social goals, rather than maintaining the existing structures and approaches of our organisations.


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A book full of Beanbags and Bullsh!t

I’m David Floyd. I’m Managing Director of the small Walthamstow-based social enterprise, Social Spider CIC. If you’re reading this, you’re reading my popular social enterprise blog, Beanbags and Bullsh!t. Over the past two years, the blog has developed a strong following amongst social entrepreneurs, academics, social enterprise leaders and other people who are interested in social enterprise.

Unfortunately, despite writing a comprehensive business plan based on generating a living wage through click-through advertising this business model has proved to be ineffective. So, despite the fact that book publishing has been abolished by the internet, I am traveling back in time to publish a book of the best posts from the blog.

The book will definitely be published one way or another – and should be quite good – but the more people chip-in, the more chance we’ll be able to pay someone who’s good at design to design it.

All profits from this project will be reinvested in a social enterprise, the Co-Operative Bank, which is responsible for providing Social Spider CIC’s overdraft facility.

You can secure your copy of the best of Beanbags as an e-book or a paper-based book – or give me even more of your hard-earned cash to secure the prestigious title ‘Order of the Beanbag’.

Get your books here: http://www.sponsume.com/project/book-full-beanbags-and-bullsht

Note on sponsorship: Readers from the business community should be aware that, like everything in social enterprise, this book is available for corporate sponsorship. Please note, though, that ‘sponsorship’ in this instance means either money and/or a really good launch party. Pro-bono business support from your staff team is not applicable on this occasion.


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Making the sums add up

An experienced businesswoman who identified significant service demand among local women in County Durham and managed to attract some local council and other funding, she nonetheless couldn’t make the sums add up. She found that the social enterprise rhetoric did not mean her, that Big Society Capital was aimed at the big boys and that little other dedicated funding was available or easily accessible either.

Cathy Pharoah of Cass Business School writing for Third Sector about the experiences of Linda Kirk, who set up the Just For Women Centre in County Durham. Few in the social enterprise sector are more critical of over-optimistic social enterprise rhetoric than me but I don’t think it make sense to blame all that gushing and bluster for the difficulties facing individual businesses.

Fortunately, Pharoah goes beyond this predictable cry of anguish to make some important points about the business challenges facing social ventures. She (rightly) rejects the ideas that social enterprise success is primarily driven by the creative, problem-solving genius of entrepreneurial individuals and points out two of the key challenges facing new local social enterprises: “One is poor access to intelligence and analysis of local market opportunities, and how they can best be used to meet need, or to fund ways of meeting it. The other is the ongoing lack of appropriate easy access to small-scale, higher-risk social finance. Small ventures need help to respond quickly and flexibly when a market opening appears.

From a social enterprise perspective, the first point is a polite way of saying ‘is selling product or service (X) really a viable way of funding social outcome (Y)?’. In the case of the Just For Women Centre, based on the information I have available that question becomes ‘is selling recycled rugs, cushions and jewellery really the most viable way to fund a centre providing a range of support for women in the local area?’ I don’t know much about rugs, cushions and jewellery in a general sense – and I know even less about the quality of the products made by this particular business – but it’s not a proposition that immediately inspires confidence.

At least, it doesn’t inspire confidence in the sense of it becoming a sustainable, unsubsidised business. In general, one of the biggest mistakes, made most regularly, in social enterprise is to attempt to carry loss-making social activities on the back of a small business doing something that isn’t directly related to those social activities. A mistake that’s made almost as often is to expect core activities with a clear social purpose – such as bringing some people together to make things – to become a viable business activity that will pay for itself, let alone generate profit to support other work. Of course, neither of these are impossible to achieve but they’re much more difficult than running a successeful small business (which is quite difficult in itself).

I don’t know if either of these models are in place in this case but, despite the local council paying its rent, the Just For Women Centre needs £40,000 to keep going. Linda Kirk believes that misunderstanding of the term ‘social enterprise’ is the key to her financial problems telling The Guardian: “I believe in the big society, but a lot of people think of a social enterprise as a business and think, ‘Why should we fund a business?’ It is a not-for-profit organisation – the difficulty is getting that across to people“.

As so often, it depends a bit on what you mean by social enterprise. I think that rent (which I’m estimating at around £10,000 per year) + £40,000 sounds like a pretty reasonable subsidy for a local organisation that, according to The Guardian story, has helped over 250 people in 15 months (since January 2011). If we round that down to 200 women using the centre in a year, that would be a subsidy of £250 per person per year. It costs the NHS around £60 an hour to provide psychotherapy.

I don’t think it’s useful to debate whether projects like Just For Women Centre – and the tens of thousands of other social ventures who deliver high social impact at a relatively low cost – are social enterprises. The people involved clearly are socially enterprising. What does need more thought is whether these ventures are likely to thrive in the current economic climate, and in the brave new world of social investment.

The social investment model promoted by Big Society Capital is about social enterprises generating a trading profit to pay off loans. That’s not much use to socially enterprising organisations who can’t sell their core social impacts as products but can, across their organisations as a whole, make relatively small amounts of public money pay for far greater positive social change than direct public sector delivery (or delivery by some larger charities).

There is, located somewhere in the future, the bountiful promise of approaches to commissioning that would enable projects like Just For Women Centre to get properly paid by commissioners for helping women rather than making rugs. What’s not currently clear is how (or whether) we’re going to support these kinds of social ventures until the promise comes true, if it ever does.


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Big Society killed by its contradictions

In my opinion Big Society is one of the most inspiring governmental initiatives … where has it gone?

This question is posed by Tessy Britton, beginning a thoughtful blog post on the apparent disappearance of Big Society from the government’s policy agenda. The post, and the reactions to it, are particularly interesting because they provide an insight into the current views of people who can broadly be described as ‘big society enthusiasts’ working in branches of what the current government calls ‘civil society’.

The consensus, broadly speaking, is that while there’s lots of successful activity going on that could fit well under the Big Society banner, Big Society as an idea has not caught on amongst the population of the UK – and is now being sidelined by the Prime Minister and other leading figures in the government.

Britton lists five reasons why she believes the government is now adopting a ‘hands off’ approach to Big Society. I don’t disagree with any of them but it’s an analysis that only really applies to one interpretation of Big Society.

That’s the interpretation that sees Big Society as promoting, in Britton’s words:  “The optimistic view of the future… where we are more connected to our neighbours, where we are more productive and socially aware, where this emergent and cultivated connection and trust might start to work on serious social problems such as crime, unemployment, truancy, depression, isolation“.

This Big Society is about people getting together to do things for themselves and each other. It’s not about replacing public services with altruistic volunteering but with a mixture of co-operation and self-help. It’s the view of Big Society that we (at Social Spider) saw the potential for in the world of mental health in our thinkpiece Better Mental Health in a Bigger Society? (published last year by Mental Health Providers Forum).

But this is only one approach to Big Society. As Simon Teasdale and co. from the Third Sector Research Centre have pointed out, the Conservative Party has at least two strong ideas on what the Big Society involves. One is the community self-help approach promoted by Tessy Britton – supported by Chris White MP in taking forward his Public Services (Social Value) Act – and the other is the view that Big Society is primarily about creating ‘open markets’ in public service delivery and/or withdrawing funding for public services and hoping altruistic volunteers will fill the gap.

Unfortunately, in political terms, while the community self-help approach to Big Society has won the odd battle – the passing of Chris White’s Bill being one example – it’s losing the war. In terms of government’s stated ‘three key parts’ of Big Society – Community Empowerment, Opening Up Public Services and Social Action – there’s only one that public sector agencies have the ability to control (as opposed to encourage).

That’s ‘Opening Up Public Services’. In that area the government quite firmly chosen the ‘free market’ approach to Big Society ahead of the community self-help approach. In terms of major national programmes, such as the Work Programme, they’ve adopted what might charitably be described as an unreconstructed approach to public procurement. The focus has been on large contractors taking on contracts which shift risk off the public balance sheet – and even relatively large charities and social enterprise have struggled to compete with corporate outsourcing giants on these terms.

The Coalition’s attitude to public procurement is not the sole reason why the Big Society idea has run out of steam, and why prominent Big Society projects – such as Your Square Mile – are struggling to make an impact but it is the most important. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether David Cameron or other government ministers genuinely think (the community self-help) Big Society is a great idea if they don’t put their money where their mouth is.

Of course, central government can’t (and shouldn’t attempt to) force local councils and NHS commissioners to give contracts charities, social enterprise and local social businesses. And the Public Services (Social Value) Act is step in the right direction in terms of encouraging that.

It’s also true that:

(a) a community self-help approach to Big Society is about much more than questions around how public services are funded and delivered and

(b) there are plenty of people who just don’t Big Society is a good idea and will never support it.

But the government could have led from front and helped to give Big Society the momentum to succeed. It’s chosen not to do so and, as a result, it may be too late to save Big Society as the label for a set of ideas.

What’s not going anywhere is the need to respond to growing social needs with decreasing resources. The people who want to get on with doing that are still there, at least for the moment, but if Big Society’s dead there’s a gap in the market for a set of ideas to explain what they’re doing and how it can best be supported.


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