Danny Kruger is Chief Executive of Only Connect.

Big Society

“The church,” said St Paul, “is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church”. Substitute “civil society” for “the church” and “the state” for “the world” and we have a political principle for our times: civil society is not peripheral to the state, but the other way around.

This, roughly put, was the basis of the Big Society campaign: the idea that “society” has more resources, more moral authority, more centrality to the lives of individuals than the institutions of the public sector.

For all its failure as a electioneering slogan in 2010, the Big Society was a highly successful brand: it achieved universal public recognition and, despite all the feigned incomprehension on the part of commentators, was generally well understood as an appeal to citizens to take personal responsibility for their neighbours and their neighbourhood.

The Big Society elevated the national conversation to something approaching a moral discourse: what sort of society do we want? What are our own responsibilities, what are others’? What is the condition of my community, and what can we do about it?

If these weren’t two ridiculous words for a Conservative leader to adopt I would have advised David Cameron to call himself a ‘new socialist’. Old socialism was about using the power of the state to advance the interests and wellbeing of the working class. New socialism is about using the power of society to protect minorities, defend and promote local communities, and create opportunities.

St Paul’s was an outrageous claim, when “the church” was a tiny persecuted sect and “the world” meant the Roman Empire at its height. And my claim may seem outrageous too, for the state has never been stronger and society – in terms of organized civil society – has never seemed weaker.

But there are a number of straws – indeed whole haystacks – in the wind, suggesting the weather is turning in favour of the new socialism.

Public finances

First, the obvious: the state is broke. We have a model of public services built on the assumption of occasional, exceptional need: most people having rare moments of illness or unemployment, and a tiny minority of people needing significant provision like drug rehab, prison or long-term care. But the shape of demand has shifted, with large numbers now relying on public services for long periods.

Meanwhile the shape of supply – the provision of services – has not shifted, or not much. We still have centralised state monopolies or near-monopolies in health, education and welfare. And the main thing which hasn’t changed is the thing which mediates supply and demand: the money, which remains imprisoned in a political consensus that whatever we do with the supply side – outsourcing, part-privatisation, spin-outs, whatever – the funding must all come from the taxpayer.

This is unsustainable and increasingly seen to be so. The only possible solution to the crisis in the public finances – from early years services to long-term care for the elderly – is co-funding. This need not always mean the individual patient or family paying (though it can and should in many cases) but can include private philanthropic support, whether from companies, foundations or individuals.

Even if this money is a tiny proportion of the total budgets required, private money is a strong tail which can wag a heavy statutory dog. The private top-up could make the difference in terms of the total cash needed, but more likely it will introduce the disciplines and the accountability that are necessary to make sure the public money is well spent. Social investment, in particular, whereby private investors provide the upfront capital for an intervention and are repaid by the taxpayer (with or without interest) in the event of the intervention succeeding, represents an immensely important new lever in the delivery of public services. Investors will insist on a realistic and achievable plan, and be following the project through to ensure it delivers success.

If philanthropists could be persuaded to come in at the end as well – to join the taxpayer as a buyer of outcomes – we would see even more rigour in the management of public service contracts.

Early intervention

The second sign of the weather changing is that commentators and politicians of all parties are realising that the monopoly public sector, built around the assumption of occasional, exceptional need, is designed for reaction: for remedying or mitigating or simply managing problems once they have emerged, rather than preventing them from emerging in the first place.

The alternative is a system of early intervention, the determination to get upstream of social failure. This is particularly the case in childhood, where it is overwhelmingly obvious that the first years of life set the pattern for the rest. But the same argument applies to every problem, to every embarrassing statistic for government and every budget shortfall. We missed the chance to start things off right, and now we are paying through the nose to make up for it, and often failing.

This is the real way to avoid the next fiscal crisis. By all means ration the supply of acute remedial state services, but the best thing we can do is dry up the demand for them.

The Treasury must be prepared to commit spending beyond the usual time scales; to cede control to co-funders and admit an element of risk; in short, to change the habits of a life-time. Only determined political leadership will make this happen, but the chances of this are growing.

Public attitudes

The third flying haystack is public attitudes and behaviour. As Douglas Carswell MP has argued, our whole system of government – let alone the public services – are predicated on a passive population, grateful for the chance to vote every four or five years but otherwise content to let the high-ups run things for them. This isn’t the way anyone lives their lives any more; we rely less and less on the mediating authorities – doctors, travel agents, the film buff behind the video store counter who told you what was worth watching – and more on each other, and our own pretty proficient researches.

For all its horrors, the internet is empowering individuals to form communities of expertise and action. What might once have seemed absurd – what, local parents setting up a school? Community groups organizing remedial sentences for young offenders? – are now commonplace. The walls of the state monopoly are crumbling, not least from within where public sector staff are forming new mutuals and taking their responsibilities with them into the independent sector.

Public attitudes to civil society have scarcely changed. We are still seen as a combination of small-scale amateur do-gooders and politicised professional campaigners for esoteric and dubious causes, neither of which seems the answer to Britain’s pressing social problems.

And though I think they misread us, in a sense I think the public are right to disregard “the sector’’ in both its amateur or professional expressions. The “sector” matters not at all, any more than “society”, abstractly conceived, has any meaning (the point Mrs Thatcher famously made). What matters is reality – real humans doing real things for themselves, their neighbours and the wider community. And crucially, these real things need real results.

Charities and community groups have no moral right to exist, however decent, committed and well intentioned their staff and volunteers are. What matters is what they do, and whether it works. The worst thing about the “sector” is when we start campaigning for it – the sector, for charities themselves – rather than for the people and the causes we exist for.

This is a tendency of all institutions, and one that I am thinking hard about as my own charity grows: how to do more, for more people, without becoming simply a bureaucracy that needs feeding. How do we ensure that we go after funding opportunities because we want to do the work, rather than because we need to pay the wage bill?

Of course, a good charity has its own interests closely aligned with those of its clients: what’s good for Only Connect should be good for our members. And mostly, this is the feature of our sector, and one which distinguishes it from the public sector where ‘producer capture’ – the system working for staff and managers rather than for the public – is endemic.

Better Commissioning

Just as in the nineteenth century surgeons struggled to escape their historic and degrading association with barbers, so commissioning needs to separate itself from procurement, an altogether lower-grade activity requiring – indeed demanding – nothing but an attention to the basics of fiduciary responsibility: the price, in short. Commissioning, properly done, is the business of co-designing a service with the people who will deliver it and the people who will receive it; the funder is only one player at the table and needs to know their place.

A particular value of humble commissioning is that it allows room for the smaller social sector organizations which are always squeezed out – ignored or exploited – when commissioning is confused with procurement. Of course, small organizations themselves need to change too, to introduce the systems and the managerial professionalism necessary for partnership with government. But they won’t do so until there is a culture and a process that makes this effort worthwhile.

For years there have been two main arguments about public service delivery – both straw men to a degree, but articulated by a sufficient number of ideologues on either side to paralyse the debate. One (the dominant argument) is that we need a single centralised state monopoly to ensure fairness and good management. The other (held by a shrill minority) is that we should simply let a thousand flowers bloom, sweep away all central management and political direction, and expect individuals and communities to look after themselves and each other.

The first argument is surely exploded, and the second is a dangerous delusion. We see this mostly clearly in places where there is neither sufficient state provision nor, in its absence, a groundswell of independent social action. These are the “charity cold spots” whence, the big funders complain, they get few applications for grants and there is an apparent lack of the community leaders needed to set up initiatives and sustain them.

Very deliberate political action is required to build up local communities’ own capacity and appetite for social action. We need to incentivise the grass roots, help social entrepreneurs set up, and build the resilience of community foundations to ensure long term sustainability once the spotlight moves on.

Public and business

We need the two great sources of life for the social sector – the public and business – to give more money, more time, and more strategic input. Our sector would benefit from an educated, stringent public and business community which didn’t simply think of charity as the recipients of its spare change, to be briefly and thoughtlessly patronised in the breaks between the real heavy lifting of life. We are the heavy lifting; this is a worthwhile object for the time, money and passion of clever committed people. Here is something for families, communities and companies to take seriously and do well. Bad philanthropy – emotion-driven or publicity-seeking giving – is a curse on our sector, as it incentivises us not only to fundraise in an exploitative and even dishonest way, but because it makes us work sloppily too. We need more grown-up support.


My regret for the Big Society is that, blamed for the disappointing result of 2010, the Conservatives dropped it as a slogan, and adopted a policy of “show not tell”: the excellent Nick Hurd was appointed to help the sector but not to boast about it. For all the positive steps forward in policy terms – from community asset transfer to Big Society Capital – the whole agenda went underground, and seems unlikely to surface in the 2015 campaign.

This is a shame, for what’s really needed to create a bigger society is, paradoxically, political leadership. Most of the public don’t know that community asset transfer is a possibility, or that Big Society Capital exists. From his citadel at the heart of the state, the Prime Minister should be proclaiming that not here – Westminster – but there, in the charities and churches and community groups of Britain, is where it’s at; there is the source of social transformation, where the change that Britain needs will happen. He did it effectively in the last Parliament, cutting through the noise and scorn to say something people understood and resonated with. It is not too late to do it again, this time with Nick Hurd’s legacy as a banner proclaiming that the revolution is underway.

This is an abridged version of an essay first published in The Blue Book of the Voluntary Sector: Civil Society and the Conservative Party after the 2015 Election, published by ACEVO and CAF, edited by Asheem Singh and George Bangham. A third essay will be published on this site tomorrow. The full collection is available online.