What the public think of the 'Big Society': Mass Observers' views on individual and community capacity for civic engagement

Working paper 95, April 2013

The Coalition government's policies envisage that more social need can be met through community initiative, relying on voluntary effort. The Government's 'Big Society' policies give expression to this idea and can be thought of as a framework of initiatives and legislation, such as the 2011 Localism Act, giving neighbourhood groups new rights and powers to act on behalf of their community. The assumption is that individuals have the capacities and willingness to volunteer on behalf of their communities to address community needs. This paper explores individuals' awareness of, and feelings around, the concept of 'Big Society'.

Analysis shows that the majority of observers who voiced an opinion on the matter held negative attitudes towards the Big Society agenda. The majority of respondants also showed little desire or capacity to take on additional voluntary work. Although some thought their communities had the capacity to take on additional responsibilities, the majority did not believe that their communities could take on sustained responsibility – none were fully confident about their communities being able to provide for all of their needs. Writings also suggest a potential tension between formal and informal types of volunteering, with people more likely to prioritise helping those they know over becoming engaged in wider community initiatives.

The research is based on 100 written responses to a Mass Observation Archive directive, commissioned by the Third Sector Research Centre. People writing for Mass Observation can be thought of as a sample of engaged individuals from different geographic and socio-economic backgrounds. The research reports on these individuals’ volunteering behaviours, as well as their perceptions of their own, and their community’s capacity for civic engagement.

The project’s focus is relevant to Coalition policy, and its implications in the context of cut backs in public expenditure.

More Information

Research contacts:

Rose Lindsey and Sarah Bulloch