Prime Minister David Cameron’s big society agenda has largely failed and has left the voluntary sector weakened rather than strengthened, according to a report from the think tank Civil Exchange.
In the last of its three big society audits, CE assesses the performance of the initiative against a total of 21 goals. It says there were negative outcomes against all but four of these and there are five lessons future governments should consider.
The report says efforts to increase voluntary sector strength and influence under the big society banner have had a "mostly negative" effect. It says: "Far from being strengthened, key parts of the sector are struggling with reduced income to meet demand and threats to the independent voice of the voluntary sector have increased.
"The voluntary sector remains resilient and resourceful in the face of challenging circumstances, although many would say that this is in spite of big society policies rather than because of them."
Other negative outcomes of the big society include a decline in people’s sense of community, a fall in the number of adoptions and increasing gaps between the affluent and the poor, the urban and the rural, and the north and the south.
The report gives four major reasons for the failure of the big society. First, that large private firms have benefited most from public service contracts, but have failed to provide for those most in need of support, and that there has been a lack of accountability and transparency in contracted-out services.
Second, there has been little real transfer of power, with government and public services still highly centralised and reactive in nature. Third, the failure to engage the least affluent, most disadvantaged communities after major cuts. And, fourth, the "failure to mobilise the private sector to work for the common good".
The report says: "Though the big society may have been undermined by these problems, it has still demonstrated real potential to help address major challenges in the coming years, though not always as a consequence of government action."
On the positive side, the report mentions the resilience of the voluntary sector, an apparent rise in social engagement among young people, increased charitable giving and some cases of better engagement with public bodies.
Caroline Slocock, director of Civil Exchange, says in the report’s foreword that the next government must do five things to avoid the mistakes of the current regime: replace the competition-based market for contracts; share and devolve more power to local levels; focus support where it is most needed; collaborate with civil society; and oversee a fundamental change in the role of business.
"A genuine big society must be taken forward with civil society, a partnership in which the state facilitates but does not dictate and in which everyone, especially those with least power and influence now, is involved," she writes.
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said the report did not fairly reflect "the significant progress made" and that the government remained committed to the idea of a stronger society.
"Since 2010 we have had 130,000 National Citizen Service graduates and the launch of the world's first social investment bank, the number of public service mutuals has increased tenfold and there has been the largest ever transfer of assets into the charitable sector," she said.
"Volunteering and charitable giving are up and there has been an unprecedented drive to devolve power and money to local communities."