News and Comment

Big questions for The Big Society: What role for local government?

Tuesday 27 July 2010


In the preceding months and weeks, many discussions about the Big Society have been taking place at OPM.   Early indications from central government – particularly the promise of a general power of competence for local authorities – point to a need for local councils to articulate their role in developing the Big Society.  It seems likely that councils will need to start by mapping local voluntary sector capacity and interest in relation to different areas of service provision.

From what little the government has revealed about the Big Society, it is clear that local government will need a developed understanding of local community organisations and their capacity to deliver particular services or share decision-making powers (or some combination of the two).  Altering delivery models for ‘hard edged’ services like childrens’ and adult social care will likely be seen as most risky, while it is easier to envisage how local parks, leisure facilities, museums and libraries could see greater involvement from volunteers, perhaps from existing ‘friends of’-type groups.  When mapping local voluntary sector capacity and interest in building the Big Society, councils will need to begin by asking the following:

  • What services would local people be willing to see delivered differently? Which would they be uneasy about seeing delivered through other channels?
  • What groups and individuals are willing and able to play a more substantial role in services?  What would be the potential costs and benefits of increasing their involvement in service provision, and what could that involvement look like?
  • Will governance and management essentially remain the same but with an increased delivery role for volunteers? Or, will entire elements of services be removed to arms-length organisations – community groups, charities, social enterprises, employee-owned cooperatives (among others)?

By Chris Reed, OPM research assistant and Rob Francis, OPM associate fellow.