The Big Society - Helen Sullivan


A good society needs an active state

Helen Sullivan, Professor of Government and Society

The state has become unfashionable again. Following a brief flirtation with it as an agent for good under New Labour, the current financial crisis and the ideological preferences of the coalition mean that the state is now regarded at best as an outmoded way of meeting needs, and at worst a block to citizen action, business entrepreneurship and efficient service delivery.

The ‘Big Society’ is the coalition’s hope to fill the gap in the public finances, but it is also intended that increased civic organising and voluntary action, coupled with the intervention of private sector organisations, will provide a route to a perpetually diminished state.

This characterisation and proposed future is flawed in a number of important ways. It underplays the important contribution made by an active and well-resourced state to the promotion of well-being and fairness, particularly in relation to complex current and future challenges such as climate change, social cohesion and economic regeneration which require the state to mobilise private, voluntary and community actors and resources.

It fails to acknowledge the interdependence of state and society, in particular the significance of the state in resourcing the development of voluntary and third sector provision. Innovative and specialist services provided by voluntary organisations require investment which to date has come largely from the state and not private philanthropy. If the state withdraws, as current cuts suggest it will, then the voluntary sector will not automatically expand to fill the gap.

Finally it neglects the significance of the state to a well-functioning democracy acting to inform citizens of their rights and entitlements, ensuring the provision of essential services, enabling citizens to participate in decisions that affect them and acting on behalf of citizens when things go wrong.

This is not to suggest that the state’s role is given and fixed. Over time the state has proved adaptable to new conditions such as the opportunities presented by new technology and changing citizen needs and expectations. Rethinking its future role requires attention to three key areas:

Working out a meaningful version of the 'Big Society’ with the public, which identifies what people in different circumstance might need and expect from the state in addition to describing what they can do for themselves alone or with others 

Taking a localist approach so that decisions are made and services delivered at the lowest appropriate level. Local government is likely to have a key role to play here in navigating tensions between diverse community interests, representing those who are otherwise excluded, and co-ordinating and regulating multiple service providers to ensure best use of resources. 

Establishing national mechanisms to minimise and address the inequalities that will arise from local variation. This will include agreeing national standards, regulating key services and redistributing resources.