Big Society and Corporate Social Responsibility

“Today is the start of a serious reform agenda to take power away from politicians and give it to people.”

So said David Cameron at the launch of the Big Society in May 2010. A big claim. As the flagship idea of the 2010 Conservative manifesto, what happened to the Big Society in the 2010-2015 parliament? As that parliament recently came to an end, now seems a timely moment to assess the impact of the Big Society concept. And in particular to see how it has affected the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda of business.

First of all, what is it? Big Society was about three inter-linked aspects:

  • Social action: being active in our communities, helping each other
  • Community empowerment: putting neighbourhoods more in charge of their own destinies
  • Public service reform: opening up Government purchasing to a wider range of providers.

The idea made sense in policy terms to some Conservative thinkers: it combined long-held positions around the ambition to see a smaller state—one that meddled less in people’s lives with a greater sense of personal and community responsibility. Big Society was the vision, decentralization was the process, and localism the ethos.

How did business get on with it?

The Big Society was well received ­initially but only for a short period. As the by-then Conservative-led coalition government found, many people didn’t get it. This response from a roundtable event to discuss the role of business in the Big Society was typical of corporate views in 2011-2012:

“The narrative is dysfunctional and there is no common thread between the core messages of Big Society, localism, better regulation, austerity and because of this the Big Society is in danger of being a political football. There is scepticism about its sticking power and consequently the private sector isn’t likely to pin itself to such uncertainty.”

Even the ministers in his government struggled with the concept. Former children’s minister Tim Loughton, famously told the volunteering organization CSV back in 2010, “The trouble is that most people don’t know what the Big Society really means, least of all the unfortunate ministers who have to articulate it.”

As the minister also suggested, Big Society sounded too ‘American’ to a British ear. Too nakedly aspirational, the whole ‘vision thing’ was a bit too much.

Which is a shame. There’s nothing wrong with vision statements—they can and should be used to articulate a view of the future that an organization wants to see realized. They can be powerful mobilizing forces. In this case, however, it seemed more likely to inspire ridicule, even on the BBC’s flagship news and current affairs programme Newsnight.

CSR and the Big Society

Big Society drew attention to the role companies can—and should—play in their communities.

Around the same time, in May 2011, the Commission on Big Society reported. Established by Acevo (the organisation that represents charity chief executives) to review the Big Society idea, it added its voice to the calls for greater clarity on the concept, calling for the government to ‘fill in the gaps.’ Interestingly, it also challenged the business community on CSR, stating much of corporate activity in this area was ‘tokenistic’ and ‘more about marketing than making a difference.’

The report called on government, business organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry, and Business in the Community (BITC—the Prince of Wales’s charity dedicated to responsible business) to create a ‘sea change’ in business leadership and make CSR more central to corporate thinking.

Volunteering for change

Perhaps inspired by these early critiques and calls for integrated working between sectors, business people volunteering for community groups has been one of the successes of the Big Society idea. It seems to have resonated with people across the political divide and certainly has been met encouragingly by businesses. The initiative Inspiring the Future numbers over 19,000 volunteers in the three years since it was established in 2012. They go into primary and secondary schools giving pupils insights into the world of work, how to build a career and offering help getting started with CV and interview skills. The Final Big Society Audit from Civil Exchange, published in early 2015, showed that volunteering had climbed back to pre-recession levels, with increases in the number of young volunteers.

Another example of this volunteering effort is the Business Connectors programme, launched in 2012 and hosted by BITC. Companies second staff for a year or two to under-served communities where they help identify community need and then match companies to those needs. Thanks to a £4.8 million grant from the Big Lottery Fund, the project has been able to scale and has attracted 140 secondees from 39 organizations. Often they are those companies who have a real interest in connecting with local communities, so supermarket Sainsbury’s and the Lloyds Banking Group have both been keen supporters.

Established with measurement tools created specifically for the initiative, BITC reports Business Connectors have made a real impact on the communities where they operate. Over two thirds of community organizations such as charities and schools that have received support have increased the services they offer and BITC claims that £7.7 million has been leveraged to support communities, thanks to Business Connectors.

By 2017, BITC aims to have Business Connectors working in over 200 disadvantaged areas and supporting more than 300 community organizations. There is a nod to legacy, too, with the ambition to create an alumni group who will continue to champion the idea of business and community working together to build a more sustainable future.

Big Society Capital

One strand of Big Society was to provide financial support for charities and social enterprises. Big Society Capital, the world’s ‘first social investment wholesaler,’ was launched in 2012 with money from dormant bank accounts and the four largest high street banks. By the end of 2014, £359 million had been made available from either Big Society Capital’s investment or related match-funding raised from third parties.

Big Society Capital is aiming to catalyse more corporate engagement in the social investment sector by launching the Business Impact Challenge, calling for businesses to submit ideas for investing in social innovation. The best ones will get match funded by Big Society Capital. In our Corporate Social Returns guide, we see this corporate investment in social change as emblematic of the most mature approaches to CSR. We hope to see more of it, and the Business Impact Challenge could be part of that.

A mixed bag

The quite deliberate contrasting of the Big Society with the Big State by the Conservative-led government led to the widely-held view that the Big Society was just a ‘cover’ for public sector cuts. The voluntary sector was asked to do more with less, to step up and fulfil a greater share of public services, at the same time as the funds to pay for that work were being cut.

Imagine what could happen if the government really got behind the idea of a broader interpretation of CSR and responsible business.

Despite legislation including the Localism Act 2011 and the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, critics pointed out that government was just as centralized and the opening up of public services’ provision was undermined by these austerity measures.

Big Society ultimately failed to live up to its ambition. The bold aspiration in the name is rather un-British and the mix of public service reform, localism and community empowerment proved to be too complex and politically charged to be palatable to the wider British public.

However, it did draw attention to the role companies can and should play in their communities and spawned a public conversation about what that should look like. This focus, perhaps indirectly, fostered innovative programmes such as the Business Connectors. These have helped corporate community engagement to mature, demonstrating a growing understanding of the win-win-win for companies, employees and society. That must be a good thing.

While businesses are motivating staff and perhaps looking at ways they can build some social enterprises into their supply chain, it is going to take a lot more than some smart community programmes to see business impact on society become positive. The Big Society risks keeping CSR in the community nice-to-have box. Lest we forget, there’s nothing in there about big CSR issues for business such as adapting to climate change, managing declining levels of natural resources or respecting human rights.

Nonetheless, it goes to show the power governments have when they choose to use it. The Big Society may not have been clear to many people but it still inspired action. Imagine what could happen if the government really got behind the idea of a broader interpretation of CSR and responsible business.

Adam Garfunkel is a Principal at Junxion, and leads the company’s UK operations.

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