Does the Failure of “Big Society” mean the end for Community Engagement?


Can decision making really be successfully transferred from the Ivory Tower of the “Big Government” into communities?


Community engagement and involvement seems to have been on everyone’s lips recently. The idea of involving communities in shaping their environment is hardly new. However, Community Engagement has been pushed into public awareness by the government and public services. Posters inviting us to get involved have become  bigger and calls for volunteers have become louder. People who work in the public sector, like me, are likely to have been told the importance customer involvement over and over again. Many colleagues in several boroughs have admitted  to be sceptical entrusting customers with decision making, eye-rolling is another typical reaction when Community Engagement is mentioned. An explanation for this might be that information about background or benefits of this new level of customer focus is often not filtered down the organisational ranks.

Background of Community Engagement

So how did Community Engagement become the talk of the town?

As usual, it is all the government’s fault. Since their election campaign in 2010  Conservative Party has placed a great focus on creating the so called “Big Society“, aiming for a shift of power from the central government  (=”Big Government”) to the local government and communities. The vision is based on the assumption that solutions of many issues such as anti-social behaviour, obesity, personal finance, environment, lack of public services etc. are only possible with the active participation of affected individuals and communities and devolution of public services and also that, after all, people should know best what their needs are.

Local Governments and Housing

Consequently, the Localism Act 2011 was the attempt to realise this vision: local governments and communities took over responsibilities for the majority of public services from the “Big Government”.

The Localism Act 2011 legislation was filtered into the social housing sector via the Homes and Communities Agency’s Regulatory Framework 2012. It demands that tenants should be given the opportunity to shape the services they receive, that landlords have to proof that they understand the needs of their tenants, stakeholders should be able to hold service providers accountable and scrutinise  services and operations.

Evaluation of Big Society

While parallels of “Big Society” concept to utopian socialism can hardly go unnoticed, many critics suspected from the start that it was no more than a spending cut exercise, forcing communities to face an increase in responsibility and budget cuts at the same time.

In November 2013 the Guardian concluded that the Localism Act had hardly any effect on power balance and no significant shift, still depending on central grants and government schemes and legislations. According to the guardian the attempts give more power to communities has failed as cities and boroughs are not entrusted with the control of their funds, which remains with the central government. This would mean that the attempt to create a “Big Society” has so far failed as public services and communities have been given more responsibility but not the financial means to actually take it.

Implications for Community Engagement

“Big Society” might not have succeeded but this does not mean that we can stop trying to involve communities. Instead, the concept has managed to highlight the  necessity for community engagement as a way to create responsive and sustainable communities.

I am wondering if any concept has a chance to succeed if responsibilities and pressure on communities are rising disproportionately faster than the number of people who are prepared to play an active role in their community.

I therefore strongly believe that the priority must be to find ways of getting people interested in actively shaping their environment and public services.