Can you tell what it is yet? Public Attitudes towards the Big Society

The ‘Big Society’ was a central theme in the Conservative 2010 general election campaign, it appears to underpin the coalition government’s policies in a range of areas and the Prime Minister has invested considerable personal capital in it. It revolves around the notion that state provision in a range of areas can, and indeed should, be reduced by encouraging individuals and communities to take greater responsibility for the delivery of services. As David Cameron asserted in a speech in 2009, ‘our alternative to big government is the big society’. Public understanding, willingness and crucially capacity to take responsibility for services previously provided by the state is therefore central to the success of the ‘Big Society’.

However, despite a strong commitment and significant publicity, including four high profile speeches by the Prime Minister, there is little evidence of widespread public recognition of the ‘Big Society’ or of any increase in recognition since the general election. Even amongst those who have heard about it, there is little evidence that a large proportion of the public have a clear understanding about what the ‘Big Society’ means. There is also evidence that, in the absence of a clear understanding, a significant proportion of the public simply assume that it is a cover for public spending cuts.

There is some evidence that while public recognition of the ‘Big Society’ is limited, when provided with a little more information about what it may involve, a significant proportion of the public think it sounds like a good idea in principle. There is also evidence that the public would like to be more involved in activities and crucially, decision-making, in their local communities. However, even amongst those who claim to have some understanding and who are broadly supportive of it in principle, there is considerable scepticism about whether the government can be successful in implementing the ‘Big Society’. Levels of volunteering have remained fairly static over many years and there remain significant barriers to people becoming more involved, particularly at a level required to  provide the consistent delivery of services previously provided by the state. It is also apparent that while many people recognise the value of voluntary action they don’t want it to replace state provision. While the government has gone some way towards persuading the public that there may be some value in increased involvement in their local communities, they have been less successful in convincing the public that the ‘Big Society’ is a desirable or effective alternative to state provision.

This post summarises an article I have recently published in the journal Social Policy and Society. The post first appeared on the Cambridge University Press journals blog, from where you can also link to the article.

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