The big society: We'll have a go ... but what is it?

A survey by Third Sector and the Local Government Chronicle indicates that people who work in the voluntary sector and local government are not sure what the big society is, but are trying to make sense of it nonetheless. Stephen Cook reports

Big society survey
Big society survey

Sixty per cent of people in the voluntary sector and local government think that the government's big society is a good thing in principle - but 65 per cent do not have a good understanding of what it is.

They make up for this, however, by filling in the gaps themselves. Forty-eight per cent think the main element of the big society is "more social action among citizens".

Offered five possible views of the big society, 32 per cent of respondents say it is achievable in some communities but not others, 25 per cent say it is achievable, and 22 per cent say it is part of an ideological attempt to shrink the state.

But respondents think that the three biggest barriers to achieving it are public spending cuts (51 per cent), a lack of agreement among local partners (48 per cent) and a lack of appetite among communities and citizens (44 per cent).

The survey was designed to test attitudes to the big society among staff in local authorities and the voluntary sector, who will be at the forefront of the big society agenda of stimulating community action and redesigning public services.

It reveals differences in attitude between the sector and the two groupings of local authorities - county, district and unitary councils, and town and parish councils. Thirty-three per cent of sector respondents, for example, think the big society will never become established, compared with 21 per cent in principal councils and 22 per cent in town and parish councils.

Only 11 per cent of sector respondents think the biggest single effect for their organisation will be "an opportunity to establish stronger communities", compared with 21 and 27 per cent for principal, and town and parish councils.

- Online responses were invited between 23 September and 8 October from readers of both magazines. Nearly 1,200 people took part - 344 from voluntary organisations, 342 from principal councils, 369 from town and parish councils, and 142 who did not identify their organisations.

- See the full results

- Read a selection of comments made by responses

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