Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Big Society and Network Governance

David Cameron
David Cameron speaking on Big Society (The Guardian Online)

By Michelle Brooks

In the wake of recent comments by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams there has been renewed debate on the subject of ‘Big society’ the coalition government’s conceptual framework for social policy in the United Kingdom. Over subsequent days a debate ensued in various news media about the comment Williams made regarding democracy and the ‘policies no-one voted for’ which were rebutted by the government alongside careful remarks on the freedom to speak which the Archbishop had exercised. The idea of democracy in the United Kingdom being brought into question is perhaps so far-fetched that we are reticent in pursuing this argument, in attending to the question with the same vigour that we would perhaps afford to other nations whose political stability appears more precarious. However, the links between ‘Big society’ and democracy have been unearthed in the area of Governance, in particular, Network Governance .

Network Governance is a method of governance that involves the shrinking of state involvement in the governance of an organisation, project, or indeed as a wider philosophical project, the nation. Purpose-driven bodies are formed out of what are regarded as relevant stakeholders such as (depending on the project) utilities, entrepreneurs, community representatives, financiers, experts etc and charged with the task of design and sometimes implementation of initiatives to include but not exclusively, policy. Around this table should sit an elected member of parliament who is charged with the task of what is called ‘meta-governance’. However, few such people are capable of such a task and often delegate this role to another. Network Governance can be viewed as empowering in that local actors are able to have influence on governance activities and people with real expertise or experience are part of the planning process. However, the absence of a democratically elected representative does pose a problematic issue in that those we elect have to stand accountable for their actions, we know their face and the office where we can submit our democratically sanctioned right to complain, their career depends on our satisfaction. Network Governance (NG) does not afford us such transparency. Additionally in classic NG, contracts are socially binding as opposed to legislatively binding, hence whilst this means some community members are enabled in decision-making at a local level, at the same time the output and application of resources from the public purse are not safeguarded in a legal framework.  This is how Big Society can be described as a post-neoliberalist movement, however in fact it brings market influences much deeper into the nitty-gritty of community politics without the fail-safes of democracy. Put simply, we may not all agree with the views of the members of the network who have been given the power to bring change, importantly we didn’t elect them to this position and therefore they do not legally represent us or necessarily have the best interests of the nation at heart. In this way, concerns over a threat to democracy emerge. Grace Skogstad has looked at this through an EU lens considering what she terms ‘input legitimacy’ an increasing problem for purpose-driven bodies in the EU.

Indeed, there has been much work on localised governance in Geographical studies and in 1998, Imrie and Raco argued that new local governance was not in fact dissimilar in many ways to the old model, citing the presence of third sector actors on committees alongside councillors and indeed how the controlling of local governance by the central government powers was equally a threat to democracy. This shows that the critique of Big Society here as I have outlined is not itself unproblematic however, it is not one we can afford to ignore.

Those of us who have worked in the third sector know that the idea of big society is not a new one, neighbourhood and community based initiatives have long been present on the social landscape. Recently, many have argued this over and over in the media, however maybe this is not what the coalition government are advancing. Perhaps their idea of Big Society is one that is more concerned with governance and a political legacy. Big Society has never explicitly been billed as Network Governance, however there are some striking links between and the picture above is perhaps a clue. Perhaps as we watch so many nations fighting for democracy we should be reminded of the fragility of our own and the need to constantly nurture and protect it.

trans-updated2 read Imrie and Raco’s article in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

read Pressurised pastoralism in South Gobi, Mongolia: what is the role of drought? read Skogstad’s article in the Journal of European Public Policy

read Pressurised pastoralism in South Gobi, Mongolia: what is the role of drought? read Rowan Williams article in The New Statesman


  1. The relationship between Network Governance and the Big Society is worrying given the loss of accountability that comes from such a model, although there are clearly some advantages in distributing decision making powers – the risks need to be kept in mind when assessing the viabilty of such structures. Interesting piece, thanks!

  2. Thanks Tahmina, absolutely, we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The need to empower people on a community-level can be done I feel while incorporating democratic values.

  3. How insightful and worrying to know how fragile the government framework is! Reassuring to learn that it’s being addressed. Well done Michelle, great stuff!!

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