Rachel Thompson, regional director in APCO Worldwide’s Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region and practice manager for corporate responsibility and global trade, is based in APCO’s London office.
Back in April, when David Cameron – now the British prime minister – launched his Conservative Party’s election campaign with a pledge to make Britain a “Big Society” through greater community empowerment and volunteerism, the idea was widely criticized as confusing, poorly conceived or simply code for public service cuts.
The lampooning of the Big Society concept has continued since Cameron became prime minister and his coalition government announced Britain’s biggest public spending cuts in several decades. Still, the government has said little about what the “Big Society” means in practice – until last night. The prime minister, addressing Business in the Community’s annual general meeting in London, made clear that corporate responsibility is central to his vision for a freer and fairer Britain.
The Prime Minister’s speech retains his overall definition of The Big Society: decentralizing power to community level, reform of public services, and encouraging social action. But it also adds a fourth component: the Government’s expectation of business to contribute more to the country through corporate responsibility.
The prime minister describes this as “a deal” – in which business has clear asks of government on managing the economy in a pro-enterprise way, and that for government to be able to deliver this, business needs to proactively contribute to solving the problems that give rise to government intervention – e.g., worklessness, obesity, community breakdown, environmental damage, economic dislocation. This means more corporate responsibility is required from every company, large and small, in the country.
To give all this a practical dimension, the prime minister announced a new initiative – “Business Commits” – which calls on every business in the UK to take action in five priority areas:
- improving skills and creating jobs, for example by increasing the number of apprenticeships or work experience placements
- reducing carbon emissions and reducing waste by measurable amounts
- improving quality of life and well-being though measures such as introducing flexible working
- supporting local communities, for example by encouraging staff to volunteer
- supporting small and medium sized enterprises and NGOs, especially in the regions, such as by mentoring a start-up business or social enterprise through BitC’s Business Connectors initiative.
The speech received warm applause from the large business and third -sector audience — as the prime minister acknowledged, most BitC member companies are already doing most of these things and more. The challenge is now to expand exponentially the number of companies engaged on these issues and the impact of their engagement. It also seems clear that an open-format pledging and reporting mechanism will be put in place to track responses to the prime minister’s call.
And so, over the next year, as public spending cuts and income tax and VAT rises begin to bite hard, we will see whether Britain’s business community rises to the real challenge set by the prime minister: to do more through CR, or face the necessity of doing more through higher taxes and regulated action, as the rest of the country is already doing.