Here you'll find a resource for keeping up-to-date on the highlights of the ideas, programs and controversies surrounding British Prime Minister David Cameron's "Big Society" agenda. His plan to de-centralize services to the local level of government and supplement government service provision with citizen engagement activities is ambitious. Can it also be successful? What does the success or failure of the Big Society in Great Britain imply for civic engagement efforts and local government programs in the USA?

These questions are of particular interest to the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership as we seek to help solve public problems by promoting self governance.

New to Big Society? Check out our foundational documents »

Good Review for Nick Hurd

David Ainsworth notes that despite frequent criticism and even ridicule of the Big Society Program, Nick Hurd has been a popular and effective minister for civil society:

Well, for a start, anyone who lasts four years in a ministerial job – six if you include his time as shadow – is doing pretty well. For a junior minister, that may be some kind of a record. It’s been so long we’ve almost forgotten how it used to be. 

Ainsworth is not a fan of the Big Society, but he notes that the policy has played a role in what will be Hurd’s legacy:

Hurd’s most enduring legacy, perhaps, is also his most controversial. He’s overseen a massive growth in social investment, in particular the growth of Big Society Capital and an explosion of social impact bonds. At base, it’s a good idea which hasn’t yet fulfilled the hype, and which is now being viewed with some suspicion by the sector it’s supposed to help.

Elsewhere, he’s attempted to make the best of the situation. He has pushed the rhetoric that the cuts will help us find smarter ways to do things, and has highlighted the big plays that his bosses have made. He has responded to sector concerns with consistent understanding, has listened and lobbied on charities’ behalf, and has generally been effective at representing charities in a way previous ministers have frankly not been.

You can read more of Ainsworth’s praise – and criticism – here.

Unexpected Faces of Big Society?

Nice (the Nonjudgmental, Integrity, Compassion, and Equality group) is challenging stereotypes around benefits recipients, by highlighting those who are contributing to the Big Society even while they’re waiting to get their own feet back on the ground:

Carl Havern is a model Big Society citizen. He volunteers for three different causes every week and cares passionately about improving his community. He is also a recovering heroin addict on benefits, who has spent much of the past decade in prison.

Mr Havern is a member of a community group in Salford starting a quiet revolution against the prevailing stereotype of some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens. It has been meeting every Thursday since October, plotting ways to challenge the increasingly incendiary rhetoric about people on benefits. This month the group launched to the public in the hope that others who are fed up of being labelled as scroungers will follow suit.

Perhaps their efforts will also inspire others who aren’t sure what to do with themselves during a time between jobs by demonstrating the value and encouraging appreciation for volunteer work. You can read more about their stories here.

Room for Small Charities in Big Society?

A recent piece in politics.co.uk raises some interesting concerns about how privatization can favor large charities or for-profit companies.  Are the concerns legitimate? Are there ways to promote involvement from smaller, more local groups as well?

Even the Centre for Social Justice, which typically is rather in favour of this sort of thing, is voicing concerns. Its research found English charities with annual incomes of under £100,000 now receive 3.5% of total voluntary sector income, down from 5.4% in 2006. Mega-charities with over £5 million a year and constituting just 1.2% of sector organisations currently attract 69% of total income.

You can read more here.

Big Society Award: Swaledale Festival

The Swaledale Festival, a charity focused on community art, recently received the Prime Minister’s Big Society Award:

The Swaledale Festival is a charity, run by two part-time staff and an army of local volunteers, works with communities in Richmond and the surrounding area throughout the year to develop a variety of arts projects for local people.

The Swaledale Festival Percussion project inspired 100 children in five Richmondshire schools. The children worked with a local woodwork experts to make instruments while learning technical, manual and communication skills as well as learning about local heritage. The five-month project ended in March with all the children performing with professional Samba band Forro Porro to a sell-out audience in a local church, playing the instruments they had helped to make.

You can read more here.

Community Rights and Community Empowerment

Co-Operative news recently ran a piece detailing whether coalition policies have been successful in empowering communities to make – and implement – local decisions:

DCLG provided over £60m in the form of advice, support and grants (available until 2015) and works closely with community enterprise network Locality (formed in 2011), Social Investment Business and other partners, including the Plunkett Foundation, Social Enterprise UK and Urban Forum.

We have spoken to nine individuals associated within the co-operative movement to see what the scheme has achieved, what the failures are – and what the hope is for future policy.

You can read the interviews here.