Big society is better society

The coalition’s vision for Britain encompasses social action, reform of public services and more com

The "big government" zeitgeist has failed and is over. Top-down micromanagement of public services has made morale plummet and widened inequalities in many areas. Failure to open up the delivery of public services to charities, social enterprises and business has stifled innovation and wasted money. Failure to put power in the hands of communities has meant that people across the country feel excluded from the decision-making process, which in turn undermines social responsibility.

The coalition government wants Britain to head in a new direction. Britain has a strong heritage of civil society and social action. But we can go much further. We can give power back to people and make it easier for charities, community groups and individuals to help others. We can support independent community action, not stifle it by insisting that we call the shots. We can invest money targeted at people having the most impact on the ground, not those with the loudest voices in the media.

A strong "big society" is about people joining together to exercise power to control their own environments and to control the way in which they live. Even if we were not dealing with a legacy where government has to borrow £1 in every £4 spent just to keep the lights on, we would be supporting it. This is the essence of what both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are about. It's good to have a society where people do things for each other. And work is under way to make it happen, based around the three strands of social action, public service reform and community empowerment.

Social action is at the heart of the "big society" and we want a stronger culture of volunteerism and philanthropy. This will start with young people who are too often alienated from society and from each other. Next summer we will pilot a new kind of non-military national service, in which all 16-year-olds will eventually get the chance to go on a summer volunteer programme. The National Citizen Service will include a residential element where young people will mix with others from all walks of life. They will also lead social-action projects in communities as a rite of passage into a society that values them and celebrates their achievements.

There is so much already happening. Earlier this year, I visited Create, a Yorkshire social enterprise that provides training for people who have been homeless or left behind by society.

It gives people the skills and self-confidence to open new chapters in their lives. This is not about public services on the cheap. It's about services that are better at tackling deprivation and enabling people to live full productive lives. We plan to inject capital into the social enterprise sector through the "big society bank" that will use money from dormant bank accounts. "Big society" makes social sense first and economic and financial sense a close second.

This new direction can transform public services, too. We're supporting a dozen projects where staff are combining to form mutuals and co-ops to deliver public services. I think this can become a real mass movement. It'll be untidy, but we know that thousands of front-line public-sector staff who can see how things can be done better would love the chance to get on and do it. There are hundreds of public-sector entrepreneurs who, if unleashed, can generate a whole new wave of enterprise.

Order of services

In Swindon, public servants plan to integrate community health and adult social services into a co-operative. Joining services together in different ways can break down organisational barriers so that services are no longer provided in isolation. This means better early intervention and more hope for people suffering multiple disadvantages. Better services. Yes, cheaper, too. But when the money's run out, as it has, we need services to be delivered more cheaply.

This goes hand in hand with our obsession with localism. We want to make it possible for people to take over local facilities that are run down or threatened with closure, and give communities the right to call referendums on local issues. Apathy grows when people don't think they can make a difference.

Our "big society vanguard" areas - Liverpool, Windsor and Maidenhead, Eden Valley (Cumbria) and the London Borough of Sutton - are pioneering local approaches. They have come forward with projects that embrace the principles of "big society". Their example is showing us where the barriers are so that we can act to break them down.

We don't believe we can just sit in Whitehall and pull levers on a dashboard marked "big society" and watch it spring into existence. And of course there are many areas where there is lots of social capital; there, all the government needs to do is remove barriers and let people get on with it. But then there are other areas where there has been generational deprivation and worklessness. We will recruit and train community organisers to stimulate and support the development of groups where they don't exist.

The state has to retrench. The fiscal crisis has seen to that. But there's a hunger today for people to seize their own destinies, assert the power of the community and forge the strongly bonded "big society" that at its best Britain has always been. There's a new zeitgeist that together we just may be able to crystallise. The prize is huge for everyone if we do.

Francis Maude is minister for the Cabinet Office, paymaster general and MP for Horsham

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut