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



Big Society image - cartoon by Fiona Katauskas|||cartoon by Fiona Katauskas

“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

Unlike the UK, Australia does not have an energised debate about the role or size of the public sector. Despite the polarising nature of discussions about the role of the state and the evidence that some Australian politicians are inclined to make similar changes to those associated with Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, there is strikingly little public debate.

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 2012. 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.”