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13 January 2016

The “Big Society“ is alive and well in David Cameron’s latest speech

The Prime Minister is creating a new public service.

By Ryan Shorthouse

What was most interesting in the Prime Minister’s speech on Monday was his discussion of the importance of social networks in influencing life chances.

Traditionally, the Prime Minister focuses on the value of strong families and a good education, both of which are strongly associated with a lower likelihood of being in poverty. But there is a growing body of evidence that shows that having not just strong but also diverse social networks can have a small but significant effect on life outcomes.

In the United States, for instance, the Equality of Opportunity project has shown that children from disadvantaged ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to experience higher social mobility if they live in mixed socio-economic backgrounds. Here in the UK, academics have found that people who have relationships with people from different neighbourhoods, ethnic backgrounds and employment are less likely to live in poverty.

As Bright Blue’s recent report argued, the focus for policymakers should be building universal institutions where adults and children from different socio-economic backgrounds can come together to forge relationships: Children’s Centres, nurseries and schools, for example. There is a particular opportunity for those on the centre-right here. It is common for those on the political left to argue that universality in taxpaying and benefit recipiency is crucial to forging social solidarity. But it is through relationships not transactions that a sense of commonality with others is formed. And institutions, sites of human interaction, have long been prized in conservative thinking.

It is interesting that the government is investing substantially more in the National Citizen Service, a programme introduced by the Coalition that provides opportunities for 16 and 17 year olds to volunteer for 30 hours. One of its main missions is to ensure young people interact with their peers from different social backgrounds. There is some early evidence on the benefits of NCS – both to the individual and wider society: for example, improvements in participant’s social skills and propensity to vote. Now the Government is extending it so, by 2021, nearly 60% of teenagers will be able to benefit from it. Slowly, National Citizen Service is maturing into a universal public service and a lasting legacy of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ vision.

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It does seem that this trajectory for National Citizen Service has some similarities with the growth of other relatively new public services. Take formal childcare. From the mid-1990s, government responded to the evidence of the value of quality childcare to children’s long-term educational attainment and maternal employment. So the journey began of government subsidising formal childcare. Sir John Major’s Government took the first step by announcing vouchers for parents of 4 year olds. The New Labour government then injected a substantial amount of money – what the OECD described as “an unprecedented effort” – to ensure childcare became what Tony Blair called “the new frontier of the welfare state”. Now, parents can access an array of financial support – the childcare tax credit, the Early Years Free Entitlement and Tax Free Childcare.

Today, formal childcare is a mature and modern public service: with universality, competition and transparency. Nearly all 3 and 4 year olds access some form of formal childcare for at least 15 hours per week. Providers are inspected by Ofsted to ensure parents are given information to make informed choices about which childcare setting to send their child to. And there is real diversity of provision: the market is dominated by small private and voluntary organisations, and ranges from child-minders to large nursery schools.

It does strike me that the National Citizen Service is being built up by this government as the next major public service. Government subsidy is increasing to ensure a majority of teenagers can participate. In future, just with other public services, policymakers will then have to find ways of ensuring greater contestability between – and more accountability of – different providers of the National Citizen Service.

Today’s teenagers are experiencing the birth of a new public service, of a new universal institution to strengthen and diversify social networks.