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Big Society and the Reform of the Public Sector


I. Introduction

The connection between civil society and the state reflects the changing nature of the public-private interaction and poses questions about the role of government in advanced capitalist societies. The constantly changing dynamics of the public-private coexistence is a direct response to the processes of globalization and modernization, which have placed the state in an entirely different realm, and have challenged its parameters as a political entity.

On the international level, what Samuel Huntington called “the third wave of democratization” (1991) has seen the globalization of world politics, and according to some, the undermined capacity of the state (Cerny 1990, Scholte 2006, Rosenau 1990). The third wave of democratization in the world has also been marked by the rise of the global civil society and the increasing power of international and local non-governmental organizations and associations (Bull 1977).

On the domestic level, a similar process can be traced. Throughout the last several decades, the traditional political ubiquity of the state has been challenged, with the rise of civil society and associational democracy (Baccaro 2002). The state no longer exists in its exhausted and narrow confinement as a ‘provider’ of public services or as ‘government’. Its functions, theorists like Baccaro argue, have been divulged to the local communities and voluntary associations, which have become the new pillar not only of public opinion, but also for public advocacy in legislature. This is a form of societal capitalism, which is often confused with the classic Marxist discourse and the decline of the state. Civil society challenges the modern state to some extent, but its functions do not aim to undermine its capabilities. As this paper will argue, they seek to reinforce them.

This paper will examine the connection between the private and the public in the contemporary state, and will assess the resuscitating power of civil society in the public sector. It will illustrate the theoretical connection between the two through the critical analysis of a rather contemporary juxtaposition between civil society and the state, proposed by the Conservative Party for the first time in 2005 – the Big Society. Specific aspects of the programme will illustrate the shift of state powers from the public to the private realm.

For clarity, the paper will be divided in several sections. The next section will focus on the competing theories on civil society and the state. It will also contain a brief literature review on key texts related to the subject and will attempt to place the Big Society in a specific theoretical framework. Sections III and IV will clarify the research question, the hypothesis, and the method respectively. Section V will introduce the key tenets of the Big Society programme and section VI will analyze in detail two of its key tenets. It will also focus on the connection between the Big Society initiatives and on the reform of the public sector. The final section will propose a summary of the findings of this paper, and will give brief comments on the future of civil society in Britain.


II. Competing Theories and Literature Review

Attempts to accommodate civil society and the state in the same political equation have started at the turn of the last century, with a deep reconsideration of the main characteristics of advanced capitalist societies and the role of the state. A leading Marxist theorist, Antonio Gramsci proposes a classic division between the state and non-state elements of governance in his Selections from the Prison Notebooks (1971). He views civil society as an organic entity, which exists beyond the realm of the government. The controversy in his theoretical model of governance comes from the exaggerated view that the civil society can exist as a self-regulatory body in a stateless world. A more moderate view on the connection between civil society and the state is proposed by sociologist Max Weber. In his Politics of the Civil Society Weber discusses the idea of public citizenship and its role in mass democracy. He discusses civil society not as an alternative, but as a cultivating force, necessary for the existence of the modern state (Weber 2004). The Weberian approach to understanding civil society makes a special contribution to the theory on the subject – it suggests that the connection between the public and private is not necessarily exclusionary, as suggested by the Marxists. Weber is one of the first scholars to suggest that the two can coexist in the realm of a unitary state, in order to optimize the services provided for its citizens.

As I have already discussed the works of two theorists occupied with the role of the state, as the historical context of civil society, a short discussion on some works related to the private sector is necessary. In his 1962 Capitalism and Political Freedom, economist Milton Friedman discusses economic neo-liberalism as an important prerequisite for political freedom of the citizens. He emphasizes the central role of the government as a provider of legislature, which would enforce property rights and civil institutions. Friedman’s economic philosophy of government intervention suggests a model of public-private form of governance. In an extensive study on social movements called Beyond Left and Right, Anthony Giddens goes even further and suggests that social movements are stronger advocates for change than political parties are (Giddens 1994). What is interesting about Giddens’ model of public-private governance is its vertical, rather than horizontal nature. He dismisses the role of right-left ideology on the political spectrum and suggests that vertical type of governance, with social movements and voluntary organizations at the core of the policy-making cycle. It is not an exaggeration to compare Giddens’ model of governance with concentric circles, where the civil society is the inner circle in the structure of the state. A similar position on the importance of social movements is suggested by Della Porta and Diani in a more recent study. Their work however is much more limited, because it describes social movements only as a product of specific historic developments. It does not explain their role as participants in legislation and as advocates of social change (Della Porta and Diani 2006).  

The final part of this review will discuss literature about the impact of the private on the state. One of the revolutionary works in this field belongs to sociologist Robert Putnam. In his Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital (1995), Putnam uses the decline of voluntary associations and civic engagement to explain the social decay of the American community. As symptoms of social apathy, he points out the political disengagement of the American public and its growing distrust to the government (Putnam 1995). Putnam’s innovative conceptualization of social capital as a driving force of the state is well- researched and non-ambivalent. Therefore, his dissection of the public-private connection in a contemporary state is one of the most realistic so far.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is David Marquand’s Decline of the Public (2004), which offers a reconsideration of the role of the public sector as a source of services and individual well-being for the citizens. Marquand proposes a new formula for the reestablishment of the public sector as the engine of the state.

One last work to be discussed is Lucio Baccaro’s original interpretation on the theory of associational democracy (2002). He describes associational democracy as the intersection between civil society and the state. Baccaro’s vision of decentralization and empowerment of the local communities can be used to fit the Big Society into a wider theoretical realm. Baccaro offers a model of public-private governance, which reveals elements of societal conservatism behind the Big Society’s main goal - the shift of regulatory powers from the government bureaucrats into the hands of the people.

It is not difficult to notice a historical trend on the changing divisions between civil society and the state. Last several decades have witnessed a major shift towards empowerment of the private sector, and transfer of powers and regulatory functions in the hands civil society organizations. This trend does not necessarily mean however that the state as a provider of services and individual well-being is in decline. On the contrary, this historic tendency suggests that civil society is a pillar, not a threat to the state and can act as a channel for reform in the public sector.



III. Research Question and Hypothesis

This paper will examine the correlation between the private and public sectors as segments of public administration. It will critically approach David Cameron’s statement: “There is such thing as society; it is just not the same thing as the state” (Cameron 2010) and will try to explain the role of local empowerment and decentralization as elements of social capital. This paper will analyze the Big Society as a new type of societal (not social!) conservatism and will assess its strengths and weaknesses as a set of policies. The essay will attempt to show why Big Society is a viable model of governance and why it reflects a positive relationship between the private and the public sectors. The major focus will be on Big Society as a channel for reform of the public sector.



IV. Methodology

In order to meet the aims and objectives of this research paper, I have decided to use the following methodology. To explore Big Society as a model of public-private reconciliation, I will focus on two of its main stipulations – local empowerment (localism) and volunteerism. Each one of them will be separately discussed. There will be three angles of assessment (tripartite model) – ideology, policy, and efficiency. Ideology will try to identify the ideas behind Big Society’s selected aspects, policy will evaluate their implementation capacity and their convertibility into policies, and efficiency will mark down their success so far.


V. The Big Society Revisited



In July 2010 in Liverpool, after the general elections, David Cameron re-launched the Big Society Programme, which was to become part of the political platform of the new coalition government. The programme had five main tenets: localism and more power for the communities; volunteerism; transfer of power from central to local government; support of cooperatives, charities, and social enterprises; transparency of government legislation (Cameron 2010). Under the Big Society programme, initiatives such as the Big Society Bank and the National Citizen Service (NCS) were established.

The idea behind the Big Society is to attribute more responsibilities to the citizens as key participants in the policy-making process. According to David Cameron, its main purpose was to propose a ground up approach of governance, where power and ideas will derive from the people (Cameron 2010). The Conservative Party proposed the Big Society Project as the engine of public sector reform.



The ideology behind the Big Society is an unconventional type of conservatism. It views successful governance as a hybrid between the private and the public sectors, and citizens’ initiative as a prerequisite for associational democracy. The idea behind the Big Society is very often confused with classic Marxism, which offers an extreme and rather utopian view of civic associations as a necessary replacement of the state. The rise of a big society however, does not imply the demise of the state. The Big Society can be interpreted as a politically sensible response to the economic recession, poverty, and social breakdown. It has lead to Cameron’s recognition of the role of the public sector and volunteerism as antidotes of a disintegrating society (Bochel and Defty 2010). The ideas of the Big Society diverge from the stance of some of David Cameron’s predecessors such as Margaret Thatcher, because it recognizes the role of non-state associations as advocates for political change and providers for the citizens. At the same time, it does not use the societal factor as an umbrella for a smaller government. Therefore, the ideology behind the Big Society can be described as societal conservatism. Societal should not be confused with social (or socialist), because the Big Society project does not exclude privatization within the welfare sector and public sector cuts.



The Big Society project has provoked mixed responses. Its supporters claim that the idea to unite the public and the private sector as providers for the citizens is revolutionary and democratically advanced. Liberals tend to view this idea as innovative, because it emphasizes the role of the citizens in shaping modern day policy.

The main criticisms of the Big Society are that is has been used to justify the radical budget cuts in the public and social sectors, and is too utopian to be implemented in practice. A popular criticism points to the lack of citizens’ incentive and appropriate skills, which are prerequisites for a fulfilling civic participation (Grint and Holt 2011, Hasan 2010).


VI. Big Society and Public Sector Reform

The Big Society has been perceived as a driving force for change in the public sector. This section will analyze two of its major stipulations - localism and volunteerism.


Local empowerment and decentralization

Localism and decentralization have been key tenets on the Big society agenda. Some of the proposals, designed to empower local authorities and citizens include introducing directly elected mayors and police commissioners; devolving the financial powers of local government; increasing transparency and letting local citizens choose the organisational structure of their local council (Inside Government 2011).

In order to assess this policy as a source of reform in the public sector, I will go back to the tripartite model, identified in the methodology section. The ideology behind local empowerment and decentralization is akin to the neo-liberal political thought. As far as the second assessment criteria is concerned, the transformation of local empowerment into an actual policy came to life in March 2011, when the Localism Bill was passed by the House of Commons despite controversies over social housing (Hodge 2011). As for the third criteria, some of the prescriptions of the Localism Bill have already been put into practice. Ministers have started giving councils greater financial freedom, by devolving £7 billion more of government funding. They have removed burdens and bureaucratic controls so that they local governments can prioritize budgets to support public services in ways, which meet the priorities of local people and communities (Communities and Local Government 2011).

This is one way to enhance reform in the public sector, as it will give more incentive for local governments to improve their services, and they will be transformed from recipients of policy, into actual initiators of one.



Another important tenet of the Big Society Project is the idea of volunteerism and civic associations. The new government has encouraged voluntary organizations and social enterprises, as another way to reform the public sector. Two of the key programmes, related to Big Society volunteerism are the National Citizens Service (NCS) and Community Organizers. These two programmes target thousands of volunteers of all age groups and different social backgrounds nationwide, and their participation in community projects in 2011 and 2012 (Cabinet Office 2011).

Volunteerism will be analyzed through the same tripartite model, already used for localism. The ideology behind it relates to associational democracy, which holds that democratization does not necessarily come from the state, but also from the citizenry, with its accumulated incentives and skills. As far as policy is concerned, both NCS and Community Organizers already exist as programmes. Efficacy is the third criteria and whether it has been met remains to be seen, because the first projects under the NCS and Community Organizers scheme are still to come.

In general, the Big Society’s tenets have potential to transform radically public sector services, with the redistribution of political power and the involvement of the people. It is an opportunity for citizens to participate in the actual process of policy-making and to provide first-hand feedback to those responsible for legislation. The most important component of the Big Society is the financial autonomy of the local councils, because it will play important part in the allocation of budgets. Local councils know the needs of their residents better than the national government. Their financial plans will be much more realistic and sustainable, targeting the public sectors policies, which have the biggest demand and have been starved for resources in the past. Financial decentralization can bring not only better quality of public sector services, but also more realistic response to the actual needs of the local residents. 


VII. Conclusion

This paper has shown the potential for the Big Society project to bring closer the private and public sectors in Britain. It has attempted to analyze the programme as a reconciliatory model of political governance, which introduces the citizens as part of the policy-making cycle. The Big Society is a response to decreasing civic participation in Britain in the last couple of decades, which has become a pattern in advanced capitalist societies throughout Western Europe.

The Big Society project offers one way to overcome the weakness of the voluntary sector by legitimizing it as a source of political power. However, the challenges to associational democracy and civil society in Britain remain the same as everywhere else - lack of incentive for civil participation and lack of bargaining leverage for non-political segments in the state. One way to overcome this is through major socio-economic reform, which will lift voluntary associations of their complementary function. A good example of such socio-economic reform is decentralization, which has already been discussed in this paper. Apart from localism, the future of civil society in Britain lies in redistribution of political resources, as well as the design of a more representative and inclusive democratic model. These are important factors for the preservation of civil society as an element in any modern liberal democracy.



Baccaro, L. (2002) “Civil Society Meets the State: A Model of Associational Democracy”. International Labour Office Working Paper No. DP/138/2002.

Available at SSRN: or doi:10.2139/ssrn.334860


Bochel, H. and Defty, A. (2010) “Safe as House? Conservative Social Policy, Public Opinion and Parliament”, The Political Quarterly, Vol 81, No 1, January-March



Bull, H. (1977). The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillian


Cabinet Office (2010) “Government Launches Big Society Programme”, 18 May, Available at:

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___________  (2010) “Government Puts Big Society at the Heart of Public Sector Reform”, 18 May

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Available at:

Giddens, A. (1994) Beyond Left and Right. The Future of Radical Politics, Stanford University Press

Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Lawrence and Wishart

Grint, K. and Holt, C. (2011) “Leading Questions: If ‘Total Place’, ‘Big Society’ and local leadership are the answers: What’s the question?”, Leadership, 7 (I) 85-98

Hasan, M. (2010) “The Sham of Cameron’s Big Society”, New Statesman, 22 November

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Inside Government (2011) “Big Society 2011: Empowering Communities, Encouraging Social Action and Opening Up Public Services”, 31 March

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Marquand, D. (2004) The Decline of the Public: Hollowing Out Citizenship, Polity Press, Cambridge


Putnam, R. (1995). “Bowling Alone. America’s Declining Social Capital” Journal of Democracy 6, 65-78

Available at:,%20Putnam,%20bowling%20alone.pdf


Rosenau, J.N. (1990) Turbulence in World Politics: A Theory and Continuity, London


Scholte, J.A.(2006). Globalization a Critical Introduction. Palgrave Macmilian, UK. p. 13-123


Weber, M. (2004) Politics of the Civil Society, Cambridge University Press

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