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How Can We Save the Big Society?

Authors: Gabriel Chanan and Colin Miller

In this open letter to the Prime Minister, Gabriel Chanan and Colin Miller argue that the current UK government's Big Society project will fail unless it focuses on real community development and volunteering, instead of being muddled with the shift to take public services into the independent sector.

An Open Letter to the Right Honourable David Cameron MP

Dear Mr Cameron

Please save the big society project by announcing that after nine months of experiment it is being put onto a different basis:

1. Instead of people taking over public services, announce that it is about people cooperating actively to help make public services more effective (‘coproduction’).

2. Bring ministers and officials who can link big society with improvements in the mainstream public services into the Office for Civil Society. Detach big society from its strong association with local authority cuts.

3. Set up a major fund to support the changes below.

4. Focus new big society policy squarely on community groups whose activities consist of 50% or more volunteering.

5. Support also those organisations which directly support community groups – local anchor organisations, councils of voluntary service, rural community councils, community development trusts etc – but link the funding for the support to demonstrable effectiveness in terms of growth of the groups in point 4.

6. Take support for social enterprises and professionally-led charities out of big society policy and put them into business policy and departmental delivery policies.

7. Acknowledge that the huge role that was played already by voluntary and community groups is the bedrock for greater advance.

8. Restore funding to community groups that have suffered from cuts, and offer increases for demonstrable increases in output.

9. Acknowledge that community organising is just one variant of the larger field of community development, and restore, reform and upgrade community development.

10. Stabilise those public services which particularly interact with and support local community groups: libraries, community centres, neighbourhood police etc.

11. Institute clear measures of whether big society is growing, in terms of volunteering, influence, impact of community groups, people’s participation etc.

12. Instruct the Office for Civil Society to use the biennial survey of the third sector to highlight the role of community groups instead of hiding them behind professional charities and enterprises.

13. Activate vigorously your original plan for all civil servants to experience local community activity at first hand, not just by volunteering, but by having a designed ‘immersion’ experience across a whole neighbourhood, ward or locality.

14. Change the label from ‘The Big Society’ to ‘big society’ so that it is seen as a description of an attribute of society, not a phantom entity.

Gabriel Chanan and Colin Miller, PACES Empowerment


The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

An open letter to the Right Honourable David Cameron MP © Gabriel Chanan and Colin Miller 2011.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

For a full explanation see the publication The Big Society and Public Services: Complementarity or Erosion at:

www.pacesempowerment.co.uk