Big Society in Oz?

A radical reduction in the size of the British public sector is generating widespread criticism in the UK. But what would be the effect of these so-called “Big Society” changes in Australia, asks CPD’s DR James Whelan.
The Centre for Policy Development (CPD) recently released a major report on “Big Society”, a set of changes implemented by British Prime Minister David Cameron. In the two years since his election, Cameron has radically redefined the role of the state and, correspondingly, the roles of the private and community sectors.

These so-called Big Society changes were inspired by Phillip Blond, director of UK think tank ResPublica. In his 2010 book Red Tory, Blond drew on a range of previous PM Tony Blair’s “Third Way” ideas, including a commitment to a smaller state and an expanded role for the community sector.

In the UK, Big Society changes have coincided with two savage national budgets that slashed funding for the public, local and community sectors and cut hundreds of thousands of public service jobs.

What about Australia?

In Australia, Big Society ideas are generating interest and support among conservative think tanks and politicians. Elements of David Cameron’s agenda have been endorsed by the Centre for Civil Society, the Centre for Social Impact, the Sydney Institute and by the Institute of Public Affairs, whose director, John Roskam, urged Tony Abbott to adopt the Big Society program.

And in his visit to Australia last year, Red Tory author Philip Blond briefed senior Liberals and local government officials. Blond also addressed a forum convened by Liberal Party think tank the Menzies Institute, to which he was introduced by Tony Abbott as a “friend of Australia”.

So how has Big Society worked in practice and what would its affect be on Australia? Under the UK’s Big Society changes, the UK government has outsourced services to “any willing provider”, delivering a windfall to international corporations as well as giving them a dominant role in the provision of what were previously public sector-run services.

The thinking behind the move is that the private sector is intrinsically more efficient than the public sector. David Cameron and others have promoted the idea of funding a diverse range of service providers, including new hybrid forms of service delivery such as mutuals, spin-outs and co-operatives.

In reality, existing corporations have dominated the outsourcing process and, despite Cameron’s enthusiasm for philanthropy and social investment, these alternative revenue streams have failed to meet expectations.

On the surface, the UK’s Big Society appeals to widely held values about citizen empowerment, co-production, diversity and autonomy. In reality, it’s being used to transfer public wealth to corporations, disempower non-government organisations and weaken the public sector.

Cameron, like Blond, has argued that citizens and communities can reduce their dependence on the state by exercising responsibility and self-direction. His Big Society changes, however, have been criticised by many community leaders for their negative impacts on the voluntary sector.

In the UK, as in Australia, volunteers already play a major role in their communities. Cameron’s changes assume that community members are willing (and able) to provide all the services previously delivered by public servants. It’s an assumption that is not supported by the facts, and it potentially compounds existing inequalities.

These are all outcomes Australia may face if Big Society changes were introduced here. Big Society is generating widespread criticism across the UK, with many communities rejecting Cameron’s policies and programs. People who support having strong and diverse community and public sectors are getting organised and fighting back.

Download your copy today!

The CPD report – Big Society | How the UK Government is Dismantling the State and What it Means for Australia – is a comprehensive analysis of Big Society and its implication for Australia. Dr James Whelan is the CPD’s Director, Public Service Research Program. To find out more visit

Big Society in the news…

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