Shrinking the state or the Big Society? Public service employment relations in an era of austerity


  • Stephen Bach is Professor of Employment Relations at the Department of Management, King's College London.

Correspondence should be addressed to Stephen Bach, King's College, Department of Management, Franklin-Wilkins Building, 150 Stamford Street, London SE1 9NH, UK; email


The Big Society is an integral part of the coalition's plans for public service retrenchment, but it is premature to dismiss it as exclusively concerned with expenditure cuts and privatisation. The Big Society signals the government's ambition to transform public services and it is the rubric that is being used to shrink the state and undermine long-standing systems of public service employment relations. This article considers the origins and meaning of the Big Society and then assesses its consequences for public service provision and the workforce. The Big Society is integrally connected to deficit reduction with the voluntary sector and an increased emphasis on volunteering promoted as a more user-centred and cost-effective way of delivering public services in tough times. For the workforce, more competition between diverse providers in conjunction with budget cuts is placing downward pressure on terms and conditions and encouraging employers to question the continuation of national pay determination in many parts of the public sector.