The Civic Caucus
8301 Creekside Circle #920, Bloomington, MN 55437
July 9, 2012
Notes of the Discussion
Verne Johnson (chair), Dwight Johnson, Ted Kolderie, Dan Loritz
(vice-chair), Tim McDonald
Summary of discussion
- Gareth Potts is a policy advisor in the
Office for Civil Society (OCS) - a unit within the UK central government
department known as the Cabinet Office. He visited Minnesota and other
places in the United States this summer to learn about maintaining and
improving public services in times of fiscal constraint. In a meeting with
the Civic Caucus he outlined several redesign efforts underway in the
United Kingdom under the title of the Big Society, including:
(1) encouraging public initiatives for more
volunteerism, more charitable contributions, and more citizen involvement
in public life,
(2) empowering and funding community groups to
prevent significant loss of identity when a valued local institution
closes or moves,
(3) empowering parents to set up new schools
outside traditional school management,
(4) empowering government employees to form new
enterprises to deliver the same services under new arms-length
relationships with their former employers,
(5) giving private organizations financial
rewards if they succeed in producing better outcomes from delivering
His comments were made in an entirely personal
capacity and do not necessarily represent those of the UK Government.
A. Introduction of speaker
- With prior experience in think tanks and
academia, Potts worked for a time in the U.K. government's Strategy Unit.
Now as a policy advisor in the Cabinet-level Office for Civil Society (OCS),
his primary concerns are in the areas of volunteerism and philanthropy.
Potts is in the United States for the summer
working on a project funded by a German Marshall Fund grant. He will be
visiting Minneapolis, Detroit, Washington DC, and Baltimore.
As his project's title, Alternatives to
closure: US lessons for keeping valued community assets open, would
suggest, Potts is looking to the United States for ideas about how to keep
important valued community assets-such as community centers, libraries and
parks-open at a time when public spending cuts are threatening to close
these assets. In particular, he is interested in novel mechanisms for
funding, such as "crowd funding" and special tax measures, as well as
creative ideas for bringing in volunteers to help with marketing,
fund-raising and physical upkeep of assets.
While in the United States he will be meeting
with key figures in community or civic groups, politicians, government
officials, businesses, faith leaders, journalists, academics as well as
the citizens that use the assets in question. Potts is happy to be
contacted around this work:
- Ted Kolderie introduced Potts, and described
his experience on a similar project also funded by the German Marshall
Fund as the Thatcher-inspired redesign of government was emerging.
"All European social welfare states were
wrestling at that time with how to maintain service levels," Kolderie
said, a similar situation as now. Individuals and groups in the private
sector and in government began developing alternatives to public services,
just as Potts describes the efforts of the Cameron government today.
The British government is
Britain has gone through a substantial,
multi-year downsizing of their public budget under the
Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government. Many areas that have
traditionally been publicly funded are now being cut drastically.
Find alternative ways to
provide needed services.
The UK Government is seeking alternative ways to
fund community assets such as parks and libraries.
Engage the public with the
'Big Society' initiative.
Overview of Big Society
Potts described how he views the concept of the
and how it compares to the idea of civil society. Big Society may be
conceptualized as the antithesis to Big Government, i.e., the central
government. One could think of it in terms of the central government as a
subsidiary of Big Society.
It is purely a concept, Potts emphasized: There
is no Big Society Program per se, or a Big Society Policy. It is
rather a way of thinking about the working relationship between the public
and its government. This is also very much a part of the Conservatives'
wider ideological stance, not just a response to the need to reduce public
There are three central pillars of the Big
Promoting social action
Opening up public services
Promoting social action - The initiative
encourages people to give time volunteering, make charitable gifts, and to
generally get involved in civic life. The Office for Civil Society office
runs several programs that seek to encourage social action. The
National Citizen Service
offers a mix of outdoor challenge and projects for young leaders. OCS is
also supporting a
program - a term made more popular by the election of former community
organizer, Barack Obama, as US President. Such organizers are skilled at
fund-raising, can galvanize people on issues, and know how to encourage
people to get out from behind the TV and get involved in local politics.
Other programs being supported include a
social action fund
innovation in giving fund.
In both cases the aim is to support initiatives with the potential to be
scaled up nationally. As the name suggests the latter fund is very much
focused on technology-based solutions such as websites and apps for
Business is also expected to do its bit. So, for
example, OCS encouraged the creation of a program where business would
offer personnel and needed skills on a pro bono basis.
Empowering communities - The government is
focusing on changing the powers available to community groups, including
new rights for communities. One example is the new
Community Right to Bid
whereby, if a property comes up for sale that a community group has
concluded is something they value - a pub, a shop - there can be a six
month stay on the sale to see if the community can come up with the money.
This is an anti-market position, Potts acknowledged, but is targeted
primarily at rural communities that feel a significant loss of identity
when an important institution closes or moves.
There is also money being made available. Most
Big Society Capital
- around 600 million pounds - coming from dormant accounts, matched to an
extent by banks. The organization makes loans to financial intermediaries
to then lend to social enterprises.
Removal of bureaucracy is also a key aim.
Another initiative led by a member of the House of Lords,
Unshackling Good Neighbours,
involves removing red tape that can impinge upon the workings of civil
society organizations-for example, excessive form-filling. The Department
of Communities and Local Government has also created a website called
where, if citizens identify rules that they find are stifling initiative,
they can email such rules to the website and the government will look at
putting their staff to work on reassessing them.
Opening up public services: The government
is also focused on opening up public services. This means a range of
things - most radically around getting new providers into the delivery of
public services. One example is the new "free school" category of public
school. There have been so-called academies since the 1990's that have
more self-direction, inspired by chartering in Minnesota and elsewhere in
the United States. Interested parents can set up
with the school funding still coming down from central government.
There are new rights defined, such as the
Right to Provide
where government officials can look to spin out of government and form new
social enterprises to deliver the same services under an arms-length
relationship to their former employers. And there is the
Right to Challenge
where existing or aspiring social enterprises can ask to handle delivery
of existing public services, with the idea being that these might offer a
better service than the existing governmental providers.
There is also interest in new ways of paying for
public services - most notably around
Social Impact Bonds.
When an organization succeeds at dealing with re-offenders, for example,
and saves the state money, such an organization can be compensated out of
anticipated savings. The government issues bonds to the private sector,
thus shifting the risk to the private sector.
In the spirit of opening government, England
will move in late 2012 to a process of
When the term Big Society came to be used, there
was criticism that it was vague. Potts contends, however, that the concept
is an intelligible one and that the general public does, in fact, 'get
it'. Another complaint was some of the groups being asked to take on
responsibility for previously government controlled activities were seeing
their funds cut. Potts noted that there was some truth in this, but that
the counter arguments held (1) that the cuts were needed, (2) that some
money had been made available to help groups make the transition to cuts
in other parts of their revenue and (3) that this is part of a broader
Conservative Party interest in empowering citizens, business and community
groups over and above Government.
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Core participants
include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
Verne C. Johnson, chair; David Broden,
Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland, Marina Lyon,
Joe Mansky, John Mooty, Jim Olson,
and Wayne Popham