Big Society and Transformational Leadership

July 21, 2010

In the UK, one of the big ideas of the new coalition government is that of Big Society. This concept favoured by Prime Minister David Cameron can be tested against the principles of transformational leadership, originally attributed to President Kennedy

In a launch speech in Liverpool this week, [July 2010] The Prime Minister was reported by The Guardian as saying that Big Society was

“..about liberation, the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from [Government] elites to the man and woman on the street. This is a powerful idea for blindingly obvious reasons. Micro-management just doesn’t work. It has turned able, capable, individuals into passive recipients of state help with little hope for a better future. It has turned lively communities into dull, soulless clones of one another. So we need to turn government completely on its head.”

Liverpool, Windsor and Maidenhead, the Eden valley in Cumbria, and Sutton in London would be in the vanguard, getting help to set up local projects, ranging from transport to improved broadband provision. Cameron said these places would be big society’s training grounds. Proposed initiatives include relocating community centres, building renewable energy projects, community buyout of pubs, spreading broadband access, giving the public more say over local spending decisions including parks budgets, and further powers to parish councils; increased volunteering at museums, developing neighbourhood media and digital content; working on sustainable transport services, developing youth projects, and creating “green living” champions.

The three strands of the big society agenda include social action (for which the government had to foster a culture of voluntarism and philanthropy); public service reform eliminating centralised bureaucracy “that wastes money and undermines morale” – and community empowerment, “creating communities with oomph”, the neighbourhoods being “in charge of their own destiny”.

Reactions to the Speech

Reactions to the speech were mostly predictable. Political opponents reacted not to the idea but its implementation.

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell called Mr Cameron’s speech “a brass-necked rebranding of programmes already put in place by a Labour government. We welcome the [Government’s} decision to continue our work in partnership with local communities, but these projects are dependant on funding and resources being put in place. It is therefore highly unlikely that civil society will become ‘bigger’ due to the large public spending cuts that are being put forward by this government.”

Norman Smith, Chief political correspondent, BBC Radio 4 noted that

The ‘big society’ is David Cameron’s Big Idea. His aides say it is about empowering communities, redistributing power and fostering a culture of volunteerism. Perhaps it is no wonder that Tory candidates during the general election found it difficult to sell the idea to voters. So why is David Cameron returning to this theme?

In part because he does view it as his answer to Big Government – but there are also more basic political motives. First, it’s about providing a different agenda to the day by day litany of cuts, cuts and more cuts. Second, it is – as his aide Eric Pickles has acknowledged about saving money. If people are doing things for free then you don’t have to pay public servants to do them for you. So beneath the grand-sounding philosophy there is hard-nosed, practical politics behind the ‘big society’ message.

Leadership Theory

One of the so-called new leadership theories of the 1980s was that of transformational leadership. This developed from studies of leaders such as John Kennedy. Such leaders who were often but not necessarily charismatic, were able to transform society by transforming the individuals within society to aspire to less selfish ends.

The theory has an appeal to idealists of all political colors. It was associated with vision and idealized influence. Although retaining its popularity on leadership courses, it also attracted critics who felt that it retained too much of earlier charismatic principles which seemed to require the intervention of ‘The Great Man’ to achieve desired social uplift. This suggests a leadership dilemma: transformation in this way is believed to require empowering, but the agent of empowering is the highly empowered and charismatic leader. Students of leadership may find it instructive to examine the big society proposal as a map for transformational change, and test it against such theoretical dilemmas.