For British Prime Minister David Cameron, the Big Society was at the heart of his domestic agenda. It was going to transform the United Kingdom in a way not seen since the introduction of the Welfare State in the immediate post war years. It would ensure that at the next election, due in 2015, he would break the shackles of his coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats and institute a Tory dynasty that would last for decades.
The Big Society also interested conservative forces Down Under. Tony Abbott eyed it as a way in which he could carry out the slash and burn of the Australian Public Service which is a requirement for incoming Liberal-National Governments. The slogans – putting government in the hands of the people; social action; cash-back for housing tenants – seemed the ideal sugar coating for the bitter pill that inevitably comes with smaller government and reductions in public services.
The idea that Cameron and his cohorts formulated was a shift of services traditionally provided by central government, to local government, voluntary agencies, charities and to groups of active citizens.
Under the plans organisations such as the Salvation Army and Red Cross would be given money to expand their social welfare activities. Civic programs would be established with a strong voluntary element; ‘free’ schools would be formed by concerned parents and teachers.
In the Big Society ideal, the people would be working to deliver the services they wanted to themselves “collective goals that would be more diverse, more local and more personal”.
That was the ideal. In reality the Big Society is in big trouble – some say it is dead in the water – a victim of the Coalition’s own austerity policies in the face of the continuing economic crisis.
Instead of receiving additional funds, grassroots voluntary groups are facing cuts in their budgets, some charities are saying that may have to severely reduce services or even shut up shop if the financial stringency continues. The Government has managed to cut thousands of jobs and do away with a swag of Agencies in the Public Service, but so far the outsourced services that were supposed to have been a replacement have – apart from in a few upmarket and privileged areas – been either sub-standard or non-existent.
Chief Executive of the social enterprise group Turning Point, Lord Adebowale, still supports the Big Society, but says it has lost momentum. Another critic from within Government, who did not wish to be named, said cutting the Public Service was the easy part of the experiment.
“We’ve done that without putting in a proper replacement structure. It’s all ad hoc. People are hurting and they are blaming us,” he said.
Words that Tony Abbott might well consider before he rushes in with a copycat program should he win Government next year.