In their report, PASC warns that the Big Society project is hampered by the lack of a clear implementation plan, leading to public confusion about the policy agenda, eighteen months into this administration. The project by its very nature requires substantial change in Whitehall and to the nature of government.
PASC has yet to see how the government will engage these charities and voluntary groups who wish to do so to deliver public services: the 'little society' rather than big business and 'Tesco' charities. Government must address the barriers such bodies experience in the contracting and commissioning system, which means developing a plan to address roles, tasks, responsibilities and skills in Whitehall departments. PASC concludes there are two major practical steps Government must take to make, or the Big Society will not achieve what the government intends.
- Create a single Big Society Minister, who has a cross-cutting brief, to help other Ministers to drive through this agenda once they begin reporting progress against the aims of Open Public Services White Paper, from April 2012.
- Implement an impact assessment, to be applied to every Government policy, statutory instrument, and new Bill, which answers the simple question: "what substantively will this do to build social capital, people power, and social entrepreneurs?"
This builds on previous reports by PASC which expressed concerns that there has been failure to lead a coherent change programme in the civil service and that the centre of government has been too weak to implement the change envisioned by the Big Society project. PASC renews its demand for the government to bring forward a comprehensive implementation plan for the Big Society and for the required changes in government.
PASC says early examples in practice like the Work Programme have left service providers such as the charitable sector – who would play a major role in the Big Society - with serious reservations. The danger is that big contractors and the largest charities continue to dominate at the expense of small and local providers. EU contracting rules need to be revised and smaller providers should be consulted on the legislative and bureaucratic barriers. There needs to be a cultural shift in Whitehall departments.
Greater clarity needed
PASC recommends greater clarity on the roles of charitable, private and public providers of public services. The ambition to open up public services to new providers has prompted concerns about the role of private companies which have not thus far been adequately addressed by Ministers. Serious concerns about the wider financial health of the charitable sector have prompted warnings that the Big Society project is being undermined by reductions in grant funding by local authorities. EU delays to setting up the new bank, Big Society Capital, are contributing to the funding gap. Social impact bonds have the potential to transform public services, but progress is slow.
PASC also asks the Government to outline how crucial issues of accountability, quality and regulatory powers will be managed in the Big Society project; in particular accountability for public expenditure. PASC may conduct a further inquiry on the question of ministerial accountability in the light of devolution, localism and the Big Society policies.
The report highlights how ministers have yet to provide funding solutions for charities like Emmaus, which provide for the multiple needs of service users. Despite meetings with groups of ministers across several departments, at which PASC Chairman Bernard Jenkin MP was present, the issues raised by Emmaus remain unresolved.
Comment from the Chair
Bernard Jenkin MP, Chairman of PASC, said:
"The Prime Minister has placed the Big Society project at the centre of his political agenda and it occupies a central place in the Coalition Agreement.
Translated into policies, it means opening up public services to new providers, increasing social action and the devolution of power to local communities and citizens. Many welcome these objectives, but this was never going to happen overnight. To make a change of this magnitude successfully will take a generation. It represents a whole new way of ‘doing Government’.
However, so far, the government has not been clear enough about what the Big Society means in practical terms. There is a lot of confusion among the public and the new providers how the Big Society policies are expected work in practice. Not all public services are suitable to be delivered by charities and not all charities are willing or capable of delivering services. Many would like to but cannot cope with the bureaucratic burdens of public contracting. Some charities and community groups have shown that they can provide some public services at better value for money than those delivered by the state. The problem is they are likely to experience significant barriers to progress unless the culture and skills in the departments commissioning such services change. In essence, this is the challenge: to build the "little society", rather than the 'Tesco' charities that are skilled at tendering.
We await the publication of the results of the consultation following the Open Public Services White Paper, but following that the Government must produce a comprehensive and coherent change programme. Without this, attempts to bring about change will be defeated by inertia."