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Big Society, big mistake?

In reacting to the recent riots, David Cameron claimed that they reflected a widespread ‘moral collapse’ afflicting society. What is needed, according to the Prime Minister, is to rebuild our broken society. This is a recurring theme in Cameron’s rhetoric over recent years and it lies at the heart of his much-hyped ‘Big Society’ project, something designed to underpin the government’s public sector reforms.

Such a view resonates with the notion of ‘social capital’ being at the heart of a well-ordered and functioning polity. The Harvard academic Robert Putnam, is most closely associated with this concept but has rightly observed that the ‘Big Society’ sets the idea of society against the state, whereas he sees the state as crucial to underpinning voluntary activity.  Nonetheless, both approaches see social networking and associational activity as fundamental to generating trust.  And trust – particularly that invested in public institutions – is increasingly seen as a crucial factor in promoting political stability, as well as enhanced economic performance.

Trust in public institutions, it is claimed, has declined over recent years throughout all western democracies, and that is often seen as linked to a parallel decline in social capital.  One of the main reasons for such a decline in trust has been the seemingly endless stories of corruption involving public figures, on which I have posted previously.

In a recent piece published in Developments in European Politics 2, Chris Wood and I explore the arguments about the links between social capital, trust and corruption.  We found that political – not social – factors hold the key to public trust in institutions. How the public judges the performance of institutions, which in turn appears to be linked to institutional design, plays the critical role in determining levels of political trust. In other words, the quality and effectiveness of democratic institutions is a better predictor of support for democracy than the extent and nature of bonds between citizens.

Across Europe, citizens feel that their governments and the political class in general are unresponsive to their demands and generally unable to deliver on the promises they make.  While this trend is visible across the continent, there remains a clear divide between the newer and older democracies. As well as lower levels of political participation, the newer democracies have less social involvement, with people less civically minded and showing lower levels of social trust. This does not mean that the relationship works the other way around, however: in specific studies of these countries, even less support has been found for social capital theory.  A more plausible explanation for low levels of civic engagement is that it is the lack of genuinely effective, accountable and fair democratic institutions, procedures and politicians, which has caused difficulties, along with the fact that civic political cultures take time to become established.

We believe therefore that the performance of democratic institutions is more of a cause than a consequence of an effectively engaged citizenship. This means that the recent decline in political trust may be reversed by ensuring that institutions are perceived to be more effective, fair and accountable.  As Bo Rothstein has argued in his important new book, The Quality of Government, impartiality in the exercise of power lies at the heart of good quality government, which in turn provides the basis for generating public trust in institutions.  It also suggests that attempts to mend Britain’s supposedly broken society by focusing on the Big Society mistakes cause for effect.

Paul M Heywood

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