Big Society versus Big State – unpicking a myth

The current debate in the UK about the  “Big Society” has been marred by some unfortunate mythology about to what extent the “Big Society” already exists, whether it is growing or shrinking, and whether it is counter-posed to the “Big State”.  The argument can be summed up as follows:

  • the Big Society – or elements of it – already exist in the UK but
  • they have been “crowded out” in recent years, mainly by the growth of the “Big State” and so
  • only by ‘rolling back’ the state and opening it up can the Big Society by encouraged to grow, and this would be a good thing.

The problem with this line of reasoning is not that it is true or false, but that is based on no, or very little, real evidence at all. At best it is usually supported by anecdote and exemplars rather than systematic knowledge. The purpose of this brief note is to point out that there may well be ways of addressing this lack of evidence, to give an example of such analysis, and to suggest ways forward.

This is clearly important for both the formulation and evaluation of policy. Without evidence, base-lines, and ways of assessing change, debates about the Big Society will remain mired in rhetoric. Evidence will not necessarily solve this problem, but it might help.

So here is a very tentative attempt to do just that: put some numbers on the ‘Big Society’ and the ‘Big State’. And before we start, I’m using here data that are both available and reasonable comparable. These may not be ideal, but they are at least a place to start.

I have chosen to look at just the OECD countries, initially. And I have excluded the “post-communist” OECD countries on the grounds that they have not had time to ‘settle down’ in terms of either size of the state or the Big Society type institutions.

First, the Big State. The simplest measure of state “size” is public spending as a proportion of GDP. These figures are easily available (from the OECD). I have decided to try and ‘iron out’ fluctuations due to economic cycles by simply averaging them over a decade (and excluding most of the current, extraordinary, crisis). The figures are the second column in the table below.

Second, the Big Society. This is clearly the most difficult but fortunately the British “Charities Aid Foundation” has recently produced the ‘World Giving Index’ (WGI), based on an international survey conducted by Gallup. This included looking at three different types of charitable behaviour – giving money, giving time and helping a stranger and used the results to produce the “World Giving Index”. See column three below, which gives the ‘scores’ (out of 100) for our selection of OECD countries.

The first thing to note is that the UK does pretty well on the WGI – ranking 8th amongst OECD countries. So maybe we already have the Big Society? In that case, what is all the fuss about? Do we need the Even Bigger Society?

The second thing is that if you correlate the Public Spending (as a proportion of GDP) figures with the WGI figures, all you get is a very weak negative correlation (-0.19). In other words, there is very little relationship between the size of the Big State and the Big Society (as measured by these indices).

Before anyone starts an all-out methodological assault, I’m fully aware neither set of data is a perfect measure for what we’re trying to get at here.  For the WGI we have no trend data, and its measures are very restricted. And maybe it does not capture the essence of the Big Society. Public spending only measures one aspect of the Big State, and that imperfectly. We do have trend data, but even over a decade (the same decade for each country) does it smooth out the affects of economic cycles enough?

But it is a start and what it points to is that there is no simple relationship between the Big State and the Big Society. Sorry Mr Cameron and Co. Good attempt, but could definitely do better.

Spending World
as % of Giving
GDP Index
99-08 Av 2010
New Zealand 39 57
Australia 35 57
Canada 41 56
Ireland 34 56
USA 36 55
Switzerland 35 55
Netherlands 46 54
UK 42 53
Austria 51 52
Iceland 44 47
Denmark 53 44
Germany 46 44
Norway 44 42
Luxemburg 39 42
Italy 48 41
Sweden 55 37
Finland 49 37
Belgium 50 36
Korea 26 29
France 53 27
Spain 39 27
Japan 38 22
Portugal 45 20
Greece 45 14
Correlation -0.19

One thought on “Big Society versus Big State – unpicking a myth

  1. This is interesting, but no great surprise. Levels of trust, for example, something you’d expect to oil the wheels of the Big Society, are high in big state Scandinavia. While the state can crowd out individual and community initiative, so can private enterprise through the market and through manipulating the market. Local groups may rise up to do something the state won’t – or to press the state to do something (take a certain decision) beyond their power. This is one issue about community organisers: I suspect elements of the Government understand that if effective, they could increase demands on government, and others see them as fitting in with outsourcing.

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