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Defining the ‘Big Society’


Themes: Organisational behaviour

Dr Paul TraceyFundamentally, says Dr Paul Tracey, the ‘Big Society’ is an organisational concept, but to date employers have been excluded from the narrative

Dr Paul Tracey, Reader in Human Resources & Organisations at Cambridge Judge Business School, says giving employees more control at work will help to create that ‘Big Society’, but that charities and community groups can’t fulfil the aims and ambitions by themselves.

In a new podcast interview for Cambridge Judge Business School expert comment series, Dr Tracey reminds politicians that they’ve left the ’employer’ out of the concept of that ‘Big Society’.

He said: “The problem of the ‘Big Society’ is that it incorporates a lot of ideas that are not connected to one another. You’ve got public sector reform, social enterprises engaged in public service delivery, and community empowerment, local people involved in decision making in their communities, and philanthropy and the publication of government data and these are a disparate set of ideas. There are so many different strands with no clear narrative.

“People are struggling to connect to it and make sense of it, and we don’t know in a practical way what it is going to mean to people, it’s very light on specifics and we don’t know in a tangible way what it is going to mean. It has been so poorly communicated to people.”

Dr Tracey said he thinks individuals needed organisations to help them achieve their social aims:

“We can all volunteer as individuals and give more money to charity but to reduce social inequality you need collective action with clear social objectives and it needs to be entrepreneurial in the way people acquire and use resources. David Cameron wants to unleash a wave of social entrepreneurs but the ‘Big Society’ has to be an organisational concept.

“Some of the ideas in the ‘Big Society’ around tackling inequality and empowerment all need to happen in organisations, we need to have a narrative about employment and how the workplace feeds into these issues.

“We need employers to think differently about the way they manage people. A big aspect of the ‘Big Society’ is about devolution of power and liberating the citizen. I don’t see how the individual can do that. Ultimately the liberation Cameron talks of needs to be done at work and it’s about getting employers to think differently about how they manage people. It’s also about giving people more responsibility and about how they manage themselves, it’s not just about community that’s the wrong level of analysis.”

Employers can liberate people by letting them have more control, says Dr Tracey:

“The big frustrations that people have in their lives are about work, it’s not about us getting involved in some community group, it’s about the fact that we want more control about what we do at work and more flexibility about how we organise our working lives. Spending more time with our family is important, for instance.”

People need better terms and conditions of employment if UK firms are to compete in a global marketplace, not worse, says Dr Tracey:

“We don’t want to get involved in a race to the bottom with China and India on low labour costs; we need to help people to create value through their work through innovation and the work that they do. This is a different labour relationship than if you were a firm in India and China.

“There’s some really interesting examples of companies doing interesting things. It is tempting for corporations to be more exploitative in the way they treat their employees but a lot of companies doing quite well are very, very innovative in terms of how they are managing their people. For example W.H. Gordon Associates in the US; it’s a very successful and very innovative company.”

Dr Tracey said politicians needed to articulate what the role of employers is in the ‘Big Society’ debate:

“One of the problems with the ‘Big Society’ narrative is that companies and firms have been excluded and I think David Cameron is missing a very big part of the picture. If you are really serious about devolution of power and responsibility you have to engage with employers and include them in this narrative. Even by talking about the importance of these issues David Cameron can bring them onto the political agenda and he can force companies to engage with them.”