If Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is the answer, what is the question?

Leading questions: If ‘Total Place’, ‘Big Society’ and local leadership are the answers: What’s the question?


From Leadership

On 19 July 2010, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, explained his concept of ‘Big Society’. The idea calls for a dramatic redistribution of power. It is a move towards change from the current way of top-down governing. This Big Society is about a huge culture change, where people, in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, in their workplace, don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face, but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities.

The Big Society is not a novel idea but just one response to the prevailing crisis in the public services triggered by the credit crunch of 2008–2009. There are many examples in the past where decentralization and local leadership has attempted to turn the local government around and failed. This article examines the proposed ideas of ‘Total Place’, ‘Big Society’ and local leadership to provide public services in an age of austerity, and considers if a power shift is the solution, what the questions that need to be asked are.



This paper concerns the apparent decentralization of decision-making in theUKthat has accompanied the new coalition government. In particular, we are interested in the rise of Prime Minister Cameron’s public services initiative: ‘Big Society’, and one of its antecedents, ‘Total Place’. We suggest that while these remain sites of political contest, they provide an opportunity for rethinking why the leadership of change might be linked to a change of leadership. In effect, if these approaches are the answer to the problem of providing public services in an age of austerity, then we need to start the analysis by asking what the questions to these answers are. To unravel this point we briefly explain the background to these developments and then consider six questions that might help explain why the local nature of leadership matters. These questions are: what kind of problem are we looking at? What is the purpose of this organization? How does power operate in this place? Why is the local nature of knowledge critical? Is time a problem or an opportunity? And, finally, what kind of local space is this? We conclude by suggesting that the nature of local leadership matters because it constitutes similar problems differently.


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Article details
Grint, K., & Holt, C. (2011). Leading questions: If ‘Total Place’, ‘Big Society’ and local leadership are the answers: What’s the question? Leadership, 7 (1), 85-98 DOI: 10.1177/1742715010393208

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