A study by the think tank Civil Exchange has found that the Big Society has failed, and the voluntary sector’s influence over government has been reduced.
In the last of three reports, which aimed to “audit” the performance of the Big Society initiative, Civil Exchange has concluded that the Big Society has not been a success.
It has said that fewer people now feel they can influence local decisions, while “disenchantment with the political system remains widespread”. It also concludes that the Big Society has failed to establish a strong partnership with the voluntary sector.
Caroline Slocock, the report’s author and 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.”
The Whose Society? The final Big Society audit report, which is a culmination of a three-year investigation, says that the Big Society has created a more divided society. The report outlines five main reasons for the Big Society’s failure.
The first of these is that “the market-based model for increasing competition and choice in public services has undermined the achievement of key goals”. It adds that there is a concern over “quasi-monopoly” private sector providers which are “too big to fail” and that there is an increased lack of accountability and transparency of public services delivered through such contracts.
The second is that “power is not being transferred from the State on any scale” and that the Big Society has failed to live up to its promise to give more power to ordinary people.
The report also concludes that a third major problem of the initiative is that there has been a “failure to target those in society who benefit least from society”. It adds that this is creating the “Big Society Gap”, where those that need it the most are experiencing the worst from public services and the voluntary sector.
No strong partnership with voluntary sector
It goes on to say that the fourth problem has been a “failure to establish a strong partnership with the voluntary sector”, which “might have been expected to be at the very heart of a meaningful Big Society”.
It adds that the independent voice of the sector has been threatened, while the government focused instead on launching “expensive new initiatives”, such as the (now defunct) Big Society Network and National Citizen Service.
Its final major problem of the Big Society has been “the failure to mobilise the private sector to work for the common good”. It adds that levels of corporate giving have not increased to “replace shrinking State funding for the voluntary sector”.
However, the report does offer some positive aspects of the Big Society. It says that the voluntary sector remains resilient, while individual generosity is at a high and social engagement by young people is increasing.
The report warns that the next government must be genuinely inclusive, target those most in need and harness the energy of the voluntary and private sectors in order to not repeat the mistakes made in the Big Society.
Recommendations for next government
It gives key recommendations for the next government, including a shift in government and public sector culture, to allow it to work more collaboratively with civil society, and a civil society-led commission on using existing resources to create a fairer society.
It also recommends a major review of public service contracting to establish the relative cost-benefits of existing contracts, the potential benefits of smaller contracts and different collaborative, rather than competitive, approaches. It also wants to remove biases against small and voluntary organisations.
NCVO: break up contracts and end gagging clauses
Nick Davies, public service manager at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said that it was clear that the “current commissioning procurement practices are failing to create the vibrant and sustainable provider market that we are looking for”. He said that NCVO would like to see contracts broken up “to enable smaller and more specialist voluntary sector organisations to be able to bid”.
He said that if commissioning authorities are going to release such large contracts, then it is essential they provide voluntary organisations with sufficient time to develop robust consortia.
The report also mentioned concerns over “gagging clauses”, which exist in major government contracts preventing voluntary organisations from expressing views about programmes with which they are involved. Davies agreed that these must be ended.
Davies added that NCVO agrees that there is a need for a significant increase in transparency. He said the government must start “publishing information on the financial flows to subcontractors, in large national contracts” such as the Transforming Rehabilitation and the Work Programme contracts.
The Cabinet Office said the report did not fairly reflect "the significant progress made" on initiatives such as National Citizen Service, Big Society Capital, public service mutuals and asset transfer to the sector.
"We remain committed to unlocking the power of a bigger, stronger society as part of our long term plan for the economy and we can already demonstrate a strong track record of delivering this," it said.
It added: "Volunteering and charitable giving are up and there has been an unprecedented drive to devolve power and money to local communities."