Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Big Society or Huge Skive? UK call to up corporate citizenship

Governing in times of austerity is an unenviable task. To try and take the edge of unpopular but inevitable spending cuts, UK premier David Cameron came up with an idea. He called it the ‘Big Society’. So what is it exactly? Well, according to the Prime Minister, it’s more than just a mask for government scrimping. It's an invitation to promote ‘community engagement’ and ‘social action’ by community and voluntary groups. 

UK charities, social enterprises and community groups aren’t so sure. Their budgets, they say, are being slashed just as the government is asking them to do more. British businesses could argue the same. Yet, the notion of the Big Society represents an obvious invitation to responsible companies to set themselves apart.

As Ethical Corporation’s recent UK Briefing reveals, UK business leaders claim to be getting on board. Its analysis of current government policy cites an authoritative survey that finds that than three in four (77%) companies say they could do more to increase their community investment.

That the Big Society should be all about voluntary action is nothing new. UK government policy of the last decade has all been about carrots, not sticks. The Coalition’s latest idea - ‘responsibility deals’ – comes from the same stable. Corporations are called on to negotiate ‘voluntary action plans’ on issues of public concern. Getting the food industry to tackle obesity is a case in point. If the private sector doesn’t act, the government says it will regulate. But will it? No one is overly convinced.

Responsible companies will find the current policy environment highly conducive. Never has the expectation, or need, for companies to behave as ‘corporate citizens’ (as UK terminology puts it) been higher. The problem lies with the laggards. The current Coalition shows little appetite for putting additional regulations or burdens on its recession-hit companies (unless its banker bonuses).

Yet business leaders who think they can get away with a Little Society vision (i.e. one of profits before people) will be in for a shock. As Ethical Corporation’s UK Briefing makes abundantly clear, businesses operating in the UK must answer to some of the world’s most vigilant consumers, media and campaign NGOs. Government policy might let irresponsible companies off the hook, but this powerful trio will do their damnedest to hold them to account.

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