Sunday 23 October 2011

Big Society research at Bramshill. LPP course Syndicate 4

At the Leading Powerful partnerships Course last week the Syndicate I directed created the following response that they have agreed to share. It follows their individual and collective research on helping and encouraging active citizens
The group consisted of senior leaders from Policng, Fire, Health, Local Authority  and the Home office. So a good mixture. The results were well presented to the rest of the course and to a panel chaired by a senior Home office leader

So, its longer than normal but here goes

There is a policy drive to encourage local people to become more active in their local communities. How can public services and communities work together to encourage this, and what are the risks and opportunities?


Big Society, A credible plan for increasing engagement and participation to reduce public sector overheads or just a big idea?  Despite substantial investment, involvement and participation has remained static with the same people volunteering and personal commitment declining.   Volunteering peaked in 2007/08 and the significant policy drive of the last five years, now grasped as an underpinning ethos by the coalition government, has failed to reverse the subsequent subtle decline.  Those areas central to the vision of Big Society & reducing civic overheads, such as building neighbourhood structures, supporting cohesion & working with key public services attract the smallest proportion of volunteers. However there is now an opportunity to identify the enablers and drivers of meaningful participation for a more involved and engaged future.


 Throughout the 2010 General Election campaign David Cameron actively promoted his ‘Big Society’ ethos:

“You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society……

The rule of government should be this:

If it unleashes community engagement – we should do it.

If it crushes it – we shouldn’t.”                                 David Cameron Liverpool July 2010

Government has completed its comprehensive spending review and local authorities are aware of the efficiencies they are expected to make over the coming years. Big Society Is actively promoted as integral to deficit reduction.

It has become increasingly clear to communities that things will be achieved differently in the future. This does present exciting opportunities to community groups and social entrepreneurs.

So, how do public services and communities work together to encourage local people to become active citizens?

2.         METHODOLOGY

 In addressing this question a review of available material was undertaken in four areas;

Academic Research & Literature Review

A review of literature, readily available on the intranet was undertaken, utilising key word searches including ‘community engagement’, ‘community participation’, ‘community volunteering’, ‘active citizenship’ and ‘citizen involvement’.  It is acknowledged that this was limited and that academic research and specialist literature, unless of a high profile, is unlikely to be readily accessible in this manner.  This review cannot therefore be considered as comprehensive but merely an insight in to higher profile, readily available material.

Statistics & Data

Articles and documents identified within the literature review were examined to ascertain the availability of relevant statistics and data.   The availability of statistics was therefore also limited within the constraint of the literature review. Validated and statistically significant data was selected from that identified in the review.

Opinion pieces and media commentary

A review was undertaken of relevant media articles and opinion pieces readily accessible through a targeted internet search, utilising the specified keywords.  

Online Survey

Primary research was undertaken, utilising the Survey Monkey online survey tool to canvass 50 individuals known to syndicate members.    Questions explored views regarding the barriers to participation and involvement, planned personal participation, planned partnership engagement with communities and perceptions of engagement opportunities.

Survey Questions can be found at Appendix A.

3.         FINDINGS

Academic Research & Literature Review

The limited review undertaken identified a wealth of policy statements and strategy documents but limited academic research.  Arnstein et al in 1969, describing the Ladder of Citizen Participation’ is referenced in most subsequent research and opinion pieces.  She described the bottom rungs as non participation; manipulation and therapy. This type of engagement and involvement is no more than lip service to the principle of working together and may even be the deterrent preventing community involvement. Arnstein identifies rungs three to five of the ladder as “tokenism”, allowing the public to have a voice through informing, consultation and placation but with no follow through and no assurance of change. Bruni et al, (2008) reiterated this referring to public participation in helping to set priorities in healthcare, suggesting that there are three factors that increase public enthusiasm for becoming active in their communities; one of the key issues being that it is dangerous to engage or consult then ignore, as this is bound to invoke anger and disengagement. At the top of the ‘ladder’ Arnstein (1969) described “citizen power” as the ultimate aim, which she described as involving participation, delegated power and finally citizen control. 

There is a consistent theme of static engagement: same citizens – same activities.  The Unshackling Good Neighbours report concluded that the reasons people do not volunteer more regularly are the result of a mix of economic and societal influences, with regulatory structures playing a part.  It identified the inhibitors of participation as: perceived risks of personal litigation, insurance issues, intrusive regulation and bureaucracy.  The task force identified a wealth of opportunities for involvement from informal neighbourhood activity to more formal organised volunteering.  The Government’s strategy document, Building a Stronger Civil Society identified a ‘real opportunity for the voluntary and community sector across the three core components of the Big Society Policy Agenda; empowering communities, opening up public services and promoting social action.’  The strategy outlines a vision of public service reform enabling charities, social enterprises, private companies and employee owned cooperatives to compete to offer high quality services.   Examples cited include reform of the planning system, communities bidding to run community assets and community rights to challenge service provision & suggest alternative providers.


The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) Citizenship Survey, provides a comprehensive analysis of active citizenship, community engagement and participation.   

In 2010, 41% of the population in England formally volunteered at least once but only 26% of the population volunteered once per month.  This is estimated as contributing £22.7billion to the economy.  Formal volunteering is defined as ‘Giving unpaid help through groups, clubs or organisations to benefit other people or the environment’.  Informal volunteering is defined as ‘Giving unpaid help as an individual to people who are not relatives’.  Formal volunteers are most likely to be aged between 35 to 49 years.  Younger volunteers are more likely to volunteer informally.

The most popular sectors for formal volunteering and participation include sport (53%), sponsored events (52%), hobbies/recreation/art (42%), religion (36%), leading groups/committee members (37%), and education (34%).  

Barriers to volunteering are cited as insufficient spare time, in particular work commitments or care of dependents (82%), bureaucracy (49%), risk & legal liability (47%), not knowing how to get involved (39%) and having the wrong skills (39%).  Individuals are more likely to get involved if they are directly asked, if friends and family are also involved, if it benefits their career prospects or they can do it from home.

The number of individuals volunteering and participating has remained static for over 10 years but there is an actual decline in the hours given.  There is, however, growth in employer supported schemes (from 18% to 24%). 

In 2008/9 42% of women formally volunteered compared to 38% of men.  In 2008/9 42% of white adults formally volunteered compared to 34% of minority ethnic group adults.  Deeper exploration reveals that this difference is due to factors other than ethnicity such as socio-economic classification.  There is significant variance across socio-economic classification with the long term unemployed least likely to volunteer (30%).

The return on volunteers nationally is estimated at between £3 & £8 for every £1 spent.  The Office of the Third Sector estimates that there are over 55,000 social enterprises in the UK, generating more than £27bn in turnover.


The national media is divided by the whole issue of the big society.  One article opened with ‘Big Society, or just BS’.  Some papers, such as the Sun, have started to conduct polls try and gauge what direction they should take either in support or in opposition to the ethos.  This poll produced the first indication of the national sway with 46% of those surveyed thinking it was a good idea but 63% explaining that they didn’t understand it.  (Sun survey 19/10/2011)

The broad sheets editorial comment gives some flavour of their views, by way of example (Guardian on-line 15th Feb 2011)In principle, there is not just nothing wrong with the big society; there is lots right with it. Citizens should have a sense of solidarity with each other. They should give something of themselves to their neighborhood and their community’. This is a fairly positive endorsement of the concept but they conclude that the timing might not be right.

In contrast to this, the Financial Times has a very cynical view of the issue stating that David Cameron has failed to ignite a spark amongst the very society it is desperate to mobilize. They also opine that the Big Society seems to run in parallel with cuts in local services and that the entire affair, albeit noble, is getting local people to take on local service delivery as the local authority backs away. (Financial Times 14/2/2011)

What is clear is that no one section of the media has a distinct view.


An in depth analysis of responses revealed key themes.  There was consistent identification of the opportunity to involve citizen more to alleviate financial pressures in the public sector.  Opportunities in clubs, societies and sporting associations, particularly youth organisations, were favoured in the short term.  Opportunities to contribute to goals such as greater cohesion, protecting the environment and improved health were favoured in the short term. 75% of respondents expressed a keen interest in undertaking partnership work with their communities.

The respondents collectively identified 24 risks to greater participation, yet only 11 opportunities.  Risks included ‘a threat to standards and compliance’, ‘costs associated with red tape and management’, ‘the need for greater supervision’ and the ‘potential irreversible loss of assets’.  Opportunities were identified as ‘breaking down barriers’, ‘promoting transparency and understanding’, ‘enabling greater access for hard to reach groups’, ‘alleviating performance pressures’.



Despite a high profile policy drive, and a wealth of successful local schemes, there has been no substantial increase in national levels of engagement and participation.  The barriers to participation are consistent and unchanged sited as insufficient spare time, in particular work commitments or care of dependents (82%), the risk exists that these factors will not easily be removed.

Perceptions of red tape, bureaucracy and rules inhibit involvement.  The same individuals are volunteering in ‘interest based’ clubs and organisations.  Socio-economic factors influence the likelihood of participation with the long term unemployed least likely to get involved.  Employer led schemes represent the only growing area of participation yet financial pressures may threaten their future.  There needs to be significant government focus on identifying and then investing in the enablers and drivers of effective participation.  Local schemes are shown to work, yet require support to enable credibility, sustainability and growth. 

The opportunity to drive initiatives in the wake of the current policy drive should be grasped.  There are impressive green shoots of participation contributing to long term issues of health, the environment and sustainability. 

A consensus has yet to be reached amongst the many groups who share a stake in the outcome of this policy drive, and that some groups retain a level of scepticism.

The beneficial opportunities if realized could be significant, but these come with associated risks as set out above. On balance this report concludes that despite this not being a new idea at a conceptual level, it has had a very short lifespan as a policy with mainstream backing or significant investment, therefore it will interesting to track developments going forward as the push continues.

So what can the public agencies do?

The key policies contained in the Cabinet Office Strategy document ‘Building a Stronger Civil Society’ describe three areas where public services can change the way they do things, they are

Empowering communities – giving local councils and neighbourhoods more power to take decisions n their local area

Opening up public services enabling charities, social enterprises private companies and employee owned cooperatives to offer services

Promoting Social Action encouraging and enabling people from all walks of life to play a more active role in society and promoting more volunteering and philanthropy.

There is a fear that embedding involvement would mean devolving large-scale powers to community groups ill-equipped to manage these.  There needs to be reassurance that any approach would involve communities in the design and delivery of public services.  The approach should involve

  • Informing communities of decision making structure ad service provision
  • Consulting communities on the delivery of services, eg through patient forums, surveys, SNT panels
  • Involving citizens ad community organisations to identify local needs ad develop localised or tailored solutions
  • Devolving appropriate power, budgets or decision making to community organisations eg maintenance of playing fields or street lighting

Achieving the goal of public services and community working together is a long standing challenge with many risks. In a society that has become quite insular and where the public have not always been interested or engaged with public services, there may be challenges in identifying people with the enthusiasm or right skills to engage with this initiative.  People may come to the table with their own agenda, wishing only to make a contribution to issues close to their own hearts. There may also be risks around identifying vulnerable people if services are delivered within the community rather than directly by public services. However it presents enormous opportunities to make public services more relevant, sustainable and potentially cheaper.

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