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The Big Society and Public Service Reform

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The ‘Big Society’ is David Cameron’s vision for Britain. It is, he claims, about helping people to come together to improve their own lives, and about putting more power in people’s hands.

During the 2010 General Election the Big Society lacked the clarity, coherence and central design required to appeal to the whole of the British electorate. It appeared to be an amalgamation of different concepts – voluntarism, localism, responsibility, freedom – without an underlying principle or binding philosophy holding them together.

However, despite the current political situation in the UK being dominated by spending cuts, the Big Society has received more attention lately, due mainly to a flurry of political activity geared towards its revival and defence. Most significantly, there has been a real attempt to translate political rhetoric about building a ‘bigger, stronger society’ into concrete policy terms that people can understand.

The latest attempt at this appeared in an article in the Telegraph, in which David Cameron set out a vision of public services where providers from the private and voluntary sectors will be given a level playing field to compete with any public body. Under these plans non-public providers could end up running schools, hospitals and council services, and would be offered payment-by-results contracts, increasing their earnings as the quality of services improve. National security services and the judiciary would be the only exemptions.

This new legislation, which will be announced in the Open Public Services White Paper next month, is an attempt to introduce creativity, innovation and competition into public services, as well as to enhance the Big Society agenda by opening minds to a wider range of possibility for responding to local needs.

These arrangements will certainly lead to greater private involvement in the provision of public services, but will also, it is hoped, provide an alternative revenue stream for voluntarysector bodies that have lost state funding under the programme of cuts.

Cameron has tried to reassure critics that the state will always be there to ensure fair funding, fair competition and – most importantly for those fearful of privatisation – fair access, regardless of wealth.

These announcements have sparked a lively debate in the UK. On one side are those who believe opening up public services to different providers is the best way to raise quality and ensure value for money; on the other are those who worry it will lead to greater inequality of access, and that the Big Society is just clever packaging for a programme of cuts unlike anything Britain has seen for a generation.

This debate is likely to intensify as Britain braces itself for a difficult financial year and Cameron’s Big Society project moves forward. One thing that is certain is that the Big Society can no longer be ignored.

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