Big Society | How the UK gov’t is dismantling the state and what it means for Australia | LANDMARK REPORT

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Download Big Society and Australia report (5mB .pdf)

“Bush declared war on terror, Blair declared war on crime and it’s like Cameron has declared war on the public sector.”

It’s just over two years since David Cameron was elected as British Prime Minister. Since his election, Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ policies that have ‘redefined the role of the state’. By commissioning ‘any willing provider’, the UK Government has contracted corporations to play a dominant role in delivering a wide range of services that were previously managed by public servants or community groups. Other ‘Big Society’ changes have diminished the capacity of the public and community sectors. The impacts of the Big Society programs in the UK have included:

  • An £81 billion cut in public spending over four years including an average 19 per cent budget cut to government agencies,60 per cent cut to the budget for new public housing and £7 billion cut to the welfare budget.
  • The UK’s public service is expected to shrink by up to 710,000 public servants over six years.
  • Corporations and the largest charities have dominated the commissioning process: 35 of 40 Work Programme (employment agency) contracts were awarded to corporations.
  • Cameron’s budgets have dealt a £5 billion funding cut to the UK’s community sector and funding cuts of £110 million to 2,000 UK charities
  • The number of people employed in the UK’s community sector fell by 70,000.
  • Local government budgets were cut by more than a quarter in 2010-11 resulting in staff cuts of 10-20 per cent and widespread cuts to programs.
  • During 2010-11, public sector employment fell by 4.3 per cent. Private sector employment increased by 1.5 per cent.

In Australia, ‘Big Society’ ideas are generating interest and support amongst conservative think tanks and politicians. CPD’s report presents a comprehensive analysis of the UK’s ‘Big Society’ policies and programs and examines their potential impact if adopted and implemented in Australia. We hope the report contributes to an informed debate about the merits of ‘small government’ ideologies and policies that often receive less than critical media and political commentary.

Download: Big Society and Australia report (5MB .pdf) here.

View: Big Society and Australia ‘Prezi’ (online presentation) here.

Download: Big Society and Australia Questions and Answers here.

Download: Big Society and Australia media release here.

Join the discussion

Get beyond the spin and find out what the ‘Big Society’ is really about. Join a conversation you won’t find in the mainstream media by liking us on Facebook and following CPD and the #ozbigsociety thread on Twitter.

Read what we are reading on ’Big Society’

To keep our finger on the pulse of public sector research, policy and political debates, CPD’s researchers maintain a Delicious account  . It helps us access the latest online public sector articles and references. Read what we’re reading by checking out our tag cloud. Click on ‘Big Society’ to learn how UK policies are creating the “biggest shakeup of what the state provides in half a century”.

Initial reactions and media coverage

CPD’s Public Service research director Dr James Whelan presented the opening keynote at the Communities in Control conference in Melbourne on May 28th. The 1300 delegates represented community sector organisations from all states and territories. On the second day of the conference former Victorian Premier Joan Kirner presented the inaugural Social Justice Oration newly established in her name. Ms Kirner was introduced by Prime Minister Julia Gillard. In the oration, she referred to CPD’s research:

“As one of yesterday’s excellent speakers, Dr James Whelan, asked, do we really want to follow UK Prime Minister David Cameron in redefining the role of the public sector as subservient to the private sector and reliant on an under-resourced community sector? Let’s be clear: we can and we must afford social and economic justice in Australia.”

Our Public Service Research Program

The CPD Public Service Program aims to develop a robust knowledge base about the state of the public service: its funding and capacity; performance in delivering community services; and attitudes toward and expectations of the Australian Public Service. Click here to read more.



Find more ideas and publications on the Australian Public Service in one of our major research programs here.

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Blog Comments

This discussion seems like a knee jerk over reaction to the misuse of an idea by the Cameron government. The carbon tax got me thinking about the value of Local Government and I think I remember Gough Whitlam trying to devolve power back to Local Government. Cameron’s mistake is to transfer resposibility without the funding, Whitlam’s mistake was to transfer funding without a clear framework of responsibilities for spending it. most of the real work done about transition to a low carbon economy is done at local level. Therefore revenues from Carbon taxation should devolve to Local Government authorities to arry through appropriate infrastructures for a “zero”(or close to) carbon economy. The possibilities afforded by Localism should be explored rather than an Us.v.Them campaign of tessellated nonsense.

How can the very discussion of such a change in policy be a knee jerk reaction when the discussion is relying so heavily on recorded fact?  The use of Us.v.Them is also worrying. Isn’t government supposed to be a representation of us? 

“A representation of us”. No, CLJ.  Sadly it has become a reflection of us. Make enough people afraid, it becomes xenophobic. Promise wealth, it becomes greedy.

The tragedy of modern politics is that it stands for nothing consistent. It has become a series of postures, easily adopted and simply rejected if it is no longer “appropriate” for election purposes.  Graham Richardson encapsulated this spavined world with his mantra of “whatever it takes”. Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne are the current avatars.  

As an unreconstructed socialist who has spent the past four years in the UK (I’m back “home” in W.A. for a couple of weeks to meet my brand new grandson), I am sickened to the stomach by the callous, cynical and politically partisan nature of the changes the UK government seems hell-bent on effecting regardless of their impacts, public and professional opinions or advice to the contrary.  
David Cameron is selling off the state and will no doubt leave Downing Street a very wealthy man, while the country will be just a gutted shell.  I am glad I can escape back here at some point, and will not have to participate in the consequences directly for very long, but my English friends and family will not be so fortunate.  I hope Australians have more sense than to allow their “leaders” to take them down a similar path, but it’s hard (if not delusional) to be optimistic.Sue, you seem to be way too sanguine about this type of change.  I too support the devolution of control to the local level where it is feasible and sensible, but we must beware of creating a new stratum of local tyrants beneath the existing ones at federal and state levels (you can see this occurring already in many local governments).  I think “radical” US climate scientist James Hansen’s proposal, that all proceeds from a carbon tax should flow directly and equally to every citizen would have been the best way to have gone here, and Labor has come up with a compromise which at least goes some way towards this, although it’s certainly not ideal.  There’s no way I would want my local government to be given the cash from the carbon tax – it would find its way into their pockets in the blink of an eye!

I think the notion of Govt being ‘of the people by the people for the people’ is lost in the idea of  Big Society. It’s almost as if the hidden reality under Big Society is ‘of big business by big business for big business’. It seems to be the magnification of the age of ‘I’ dressed up in the clothes of ‘we’. 
On the flip side, if it is ever introduced in Australia, I have no doubt that in time, after a period of societal suffering, it would offer the opportunity for Labor to differentiate itself from Liberal policy. 
However in the meantime it begs the question, What really is the role of Government?

[…] Centre for Policy Development has just released an essay on the Big Society and what it means for […]

[…] Miriam Lyons of the Centre for Policy Development (CPD), says that could be about to change. In its paper on “Big Society” CPD explores what it could mean for Australia. Read it here. […]

[…] Big Society, CPD in the News, Public Service   Share CPD’s recently released report, Big Society: How the UK Government is Dismantling the State and What it Means for Australia outlined the ways in which David Cameron’s Big Society policy has crippled certain state […]

Your central thesis is very disappointing and erroneous. Margaret Thatcher famously said, ‘There is no such thing as society’. Given the history of the Conservatives in the UK it is hard to believe that anyone could claim that a Conservative administration is trying to make a ‘big society’. The Conservatives are and always have been advocates of big capital. What is truly scary is that a party could be elected that is interested in giving capital a bigger chunk of the economy  and further deregulating capital, even after the GFC. That is the real story here.

Thanks for the comment ‘GuiltByStander’. Our report reaches similar conclusions. ‘Big Society’ is a misleading framing for changes that – as you observe – actually favour corporations and only the largest non-government organisations. I hope you’ll find time to read the essay, and our forthcoming report (due for release late May).

 ‘Big Society’ is just another way of saying ‘small government’.

I understood “Big Society” to be the name the Conservatives have given the policy to make it more palatable, not a label given by others.

JOE Hockey’s “age of entitlement” speech to the Institute of Economic Affairs in London this week – the Shadow Treasurer is talking about the Government that helps those who help themselves.  “The age of entitlement is over.” A Big Society is coming to AUS?

It’s already here.

Your work on Big Society and Australia is a breath of fresh air, however how many people will recognise fresh air from obnoxious air.  To many people are busy with the bread and circus format of living a life to even notice the smell in the air.

[…] Big Society | How the UK Government is Dismantling the State and What it Means for Australia. Share […]

From the article above, the ‘promise’ made by ‘Big Society’ reform is
attractive, but CPD’s Dr. Whelan says the reform does not live up to
the promise, just cuts funding.

The attractions mentioned are –
reduced government
fewer NFP players to negotiate – responsibility rests in small number of bigger players
more centralised private management
improved administration of public funds

In the slide presentation, Big Society promises to –
empower communities, encourage a diversity of service providers, and to
foster volunteerism and mutualism … citizens & neighbourhood
groups participating in design & delivery of services, social public
& private providers (any willing provider) collaborating,
government protecting the vulnerable … this is “language that has
widespread appeal”.

The objection is that Big Society is not about
safeguarding the public interest – it is about enriching the few. Which
few depends on where you stand. Dr Whalan points to Cameron &
Serco, but reduced funding & taxation also appeals to a larger few,
and our western society as a whole (which only makes up 20% of the
earth’s people) is keen to limit liabilities like foreign aid and
refugees in order to enrich itself. 

When you point the
finger, three are pointing back at you. Besides, there is no future in
fighting for or against one party which will soon enough be in or out of
power. If we are looking for a way forward the real challenge is to find a pathway all could support. 

Without depriving anyone
of their drive for a better life, can we find ways to enrich ourselves –
to save costs & to ensure everyone has a fulfilling role in a
better, more just society? I think the empowerment of the poor in our
society CAN be advanced to the advantage of all. I think this needs to
be done without requiring our economy to provide ever more funding for
local benefits. More funding would force our economy to get more
competitive with the poor outside our society. 

The change I
suggest would involve a simple relaxation of “mutual obligations” for
the unemployed and full recognition of volunteerism in NFP’s (see



Concerned Advocate

Fascinating. Looking forward to reading the article. My work involves contact with community housing and I am seeing this happen, slowly and insidiously.   The running down of Housing NSW properties, the tightening up on staffing, cuts in funding for maintenance. Meanwhile we are seeing more and more privately owned housing providers lurking at the wings…..

Which is crazy because we only have 4% of housing in public hands in Australia, as compared to the UK with 30%. We’re already the big society. I just hate when politicians behave like colonial vassals. Self-hating anglophile wimps like Andrews and Abbott shouldn’t be let anywhere near government.

The problem I see with the public sector is not that it is too big. The problem is there are far more senior executive and outnumber the working class public servants. They need more public servants in the non-managerial position serving the public and less senior executives that does nothing. Also, they need to skill the public servant. To summarise, more non-managerial, increase lower manager, bring back middle manager and scale down senior executives and re-skill public servants. 

[…] 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 […]

Hi folks, sorry but could you get the geography right. The Big Society agenda is only for England not the rest of the U.K. as the other U.K. Nations  have rejected the conservative agenda and this is a devolvedpolicy area which is  decided in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast not London.


Another reason Scots might be feeling more distanced from England…

[…] Christopher Stone will speak on Day 1 at 11am, on the topic of, “Workforce Planning in the Big Society: How the UK Government is Dismantling the State and What it Means for […]

More than just privatisation re-branded?

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