By Pete Alcock
The Big Society has become one of the key political concepts of the UK Coalition Government. It was developed by the Conservatives in the run up to the 2010 election, with the personal endorsement of the leader, David Cameron. Since the election it has become a central feature of the new government’s policy programme, and has continued to be promoted by Cameron, who in July 2010 described it as his ‘great passion’.
However what is meant by the Big Society, and what the implications of it are for policy and practice, particularly in the third sector, are far from clear or uncontested. Critics have pointed out that the term is so vague that it could appeal to anyone – though perhaps for supporters that is one it its attractions – but it is not clear what it might mean in practice. In particular some have asked what is so new about some of the Big Society ideas – have we not been here before? Others, more sceptically, have suggested that it is just a cover for cuts in public provision, driven by the economic agenda. If the state is going to do less, then people are just going to have to do more themselves!
Behind the Big Society rhetoric, however, there are a number of policy initiatives impacting on the third sector - or rather Civil Society as the government now prefer to refer to this. These include Big Society Capital, the National Citizens Service, Community Organisers and many more. Do these help us to get beyond the political rhetoric to understand better what the government is seeking to achieve with the Big Society?
An upcoming policy seminar will bring together a group of strategic thinkers, who have been critically reappraising the Big Society from their perspectives in the policy, practice and academic communities, and draws on the research carried out in the Third Sector Research Centre. It promises to provide lively debate to expose the political rhetoric and explore the policy in practice. It will ask whether, after eighteen months, we can make a more informed judgement about the Big Society and its implications for British, or rather English, society.