Will a smaller state create a bigger society in Australia?

David Cameron has championed the ‘Big Society’ - but is it the right fit for Australia? Andy Rain / AAP

Public service reform is never far from the minds of newly elected governments, particularly in times of fiscal constraint. The pressure to cut budgets combined with a determination to “do something” about the size and scope of the state can generate radical recipes for reform in an often heady combination.

David Cameron’s leadership in the UK and his vision for a “Big Society” marked a major shift in how conservatives want the public to view the role of the state in the 21st century - and it’s a vision that conservative state governments in Australia are looking at very closely.

Recent announcements in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland provide clear indication of policy makers’ appetite for reform. Attention is quite rightly being paid to the implications of the proposed job losses on public sector employment and public service delivery.

What is the Big Society?

Given the tradition of policy exchange between Australia and the UK, there are a number of similarities between the proposed programs of non-Labor states in Australia and the UK Coalition government’s agenda for the Big Society.

In both cases the state is regarded at best as an outmoded way of meeting needs, and at worst as a block to citizen action, business entrepreneurship and efficient service delivery.

The ambition is to replace the “nanny” state with one that is “lean” and “agile”, focused on enabling action by others, but not providing services directly itself. In England all superfluous state institutions and activity are to be swept away through a “bonfire of the quangos”. Freedom from the state is central to the Big Society rhetoric. The Big Society is described as:

… What happens whenever people work together for the common good. It is about achieving our collective goals in ways that are more diverse, more local and more personal.

Cameron’s government aims to support a shift to a Big Society in three major ways: by devolving government to local authorities and councils, by outsourcing the public service and by supporting citizens to take control of their own communities.

The UK Coalition supports a range of initiatives to help realise this. The Big Society Bank, the Community Organisers and Community First schemes are designed to support civic action while the National Citizen Service aims to encourage volunteering amongst young people.

In specific service areas the introduction of “free schools”, the “tenant cashback” scheme (offering tenants a bonus if they do their own repairs for a year) and the extension of individual budgets all aim to devolve more power to “users”. Finally, the trialing of mutual forms of organisation and social enterprise in public services, and experiments with new forms of social investment to support the social sector offer new ways of thinking about how to organise and fund services.

One aspect of the UK Coalition’s program - the focus on social investment - has already found favour with policy makers in Australia. The most well-known example is that of Social Impact Bonds, currently being trialed in New South Wales, but think tanks and public policy centres in both countries are actively exploring other kinds of investment instruments that combine market and social principles.

The poor hurt first

Two years on from the launch of the Big Society in England there are a number of lessons that might benefit Australian policy makers contemplating a similar program.

The first relates to the scope and scale of any public sector cuts. Evidence from a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation concluded that the Coalition’s decision to frontload significant local government spending cuts had a disproportionate adverse impact on the most vulnerable in local communities.

Cutting fast and deep in this way means that even the best prepared local authorities are not able to make good strategic decisions to manage disinvestment – cutting services and jobs whilst holding onto the public service skills necessary for managing the transition from big state to Big Society.

It also intensifies the lag in shifting from state provision to social enterprise or voluntary provision. In communities without much economic or social capital, the loss of public service support can jeopardise the building of alternatives.

The passive state

The second lesson concerns the nature of the “enabling state”. A Big Society needs an active state, one that is able to lead action on complex current and future challenges such as climate change, social cohesion and economic regeneration.

The state alone has the requisite capacity to mobilise private, voluntary and community representatives and resources. This is particularly important in the context of poor or disadvantaged communities where a fundamental lack of economic resources can never be compensated for by the generation of social capital and social enterprise.

An enabling state also has a vital role to play in resourcing and supporting the not-for-profit sector, not least by way of contracted services. State withdrawal will not automatically lead to an increase in philanthropic giving to fill the gap, particularly in difficult economic circumstances.

If a goal of the Big Society is a diversity of service provision, then state action is necessary to support this otherwise large-scale public sector provision will simply be replaced by large-scale private sector provision.

Conflicts of interest

The third lesson concerns the role and status of public service professionals versus community members as service providers and why we might choose to opt for the former rather than the latter.

Professionals have a commitment to both the service and to meeting the needs of the community. Their affiliation to a particular professional association coupled with their employment by a state or local authority combines professional focus with an attachment to a broader public service ethos. This means that their interactions with the community are informed but disinterested.

By contrast, community volunteers have a very different relationship with services and with their community. Their local knowledge and commitment so valued by Big Society supporters disconnects them from a wider professional network and indeed a wider public service ethos. It replaces informed and disinterested engagement with more intimate exchanges borne out of shared community connections.

This redefines the provision of services as a space for community bonding, and for transmitting shared community values which may be experienced as either liberating or oppressive depending on the circumstances.

A cover for cuts

Lessons from the UK’s Big Society experiment suggest that any attempt to redefine the prevailing social contract should take better account of the complexity and nuance of existing arrangements.

Otherwise the risk is that as in the UK, Australians will not embrace these reforms as freeing them from an overweening state.

Rather they will tend to understand them merely as a cover for cuts and a battle for public services.