“Big Society” Debate Spreads Beyond the U.K.

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August 21, 2012; Source: Colin Penter Blog

Sometimes perspectives from other nations help us see U.S. nonprofit dynamics in a new light. We have all been reading—and in the NPQ Newswire, commenting (see here and here)—about the “Big Society” strategy for nonprofits promulgated by the Tory government of Prime Minister David Cameron in the U.K.

Australian blogger Colin Penter suggests that the Big Society is influencing the opposition’s social agenda for the upcoming elections down under. He writes that, “Coalition frontbenchers have been instructed to slice away federal bureaucratic oversight of aged care, childcare, employment and family services in a bid to devolve government power and deliver budget savings through public service cuts.” The Australian opposition says, like Cameron in the U.K., that there won’t be cuts in “frontline services” but savings through “stripping unnecessary federal oversight of federally funded services delivered by community and private organisations.”

Drawing on an article by Lenore Taylor in the Sydney Morning Herald, Penter argues that the Big Society rhetoric has been “used to justify sweeping cuts to the public service, to community services and even to the community and voluntary organisations it was supposed to nurture.” He charges that the Big Society has occasioned a huge privatization of human and community services and has benefitted not small, community-based nonprofits, but large corporations.

Penter also cites a report from the Centre for Policy Development, “Big Society: How the UK Government is Dismantling the State and What It Means for Australia,” to describe some of the fiscal and quantitative impacts of the Big Society in the U.K.: a 19 percent cut, on average, in public funding for government agencies, a 60 percent cut in the budget for new public housing, a reduction of £5 billion in funds for the U.K.’s community sector, and £110 million in cuts to 2,000 U.K. nonprofits.

Where you stand on the Big Society may be dependent on where you sit. Other observers might like Big Society-related statistics such as the U.K.’s reduction in public sector employment by 710,000 people and a similar reduction in community sector employment by 70,000; in 2010-2011, one can contrast a 4.3 percent reduction in public sector employment with a 1.5 percent increase in private sector employment.

As the U.K. absorbs the meaning of the Big Society and Australian charities consider what its replication by conservatives there would mean for them, the debate can also serve as a backdrop to the social policy debates of the U.S.—except that it’s hard sometimes to even figure out what either major party is really saying about the “community sector” and charities in the U.S.—Rick Cohen