Tackling Beveridge's 'Five Giants' together

William Beveridge, widely regarded as the architect of our modern welfare state, was not simply a proponent of big government. He was also a champion of the role that people and communities can and should play in helping to tackle what he saw as the five major challenges (the “Five Giants”) of his era: Squalor, Want, Ignorance, Disease, and Idleness.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the publication of Beveridge’s Social Insurance and Allied Services (the Beveridge Report) in 1942, the London School of Economics hosted a two week long Beveridge 2.0. Festival. In this post, we look at Nesta’s work on people-powered public services through the lens of Beveridge’s Five Giants, and think about what a different set of relationships between citizens and the state might look like today.

In the 75 years since the Beveridge report, the UK has made huge progress in setting up world-class public services. Yet circumstances have changed in the 21st century, and the social insurance system laid out by Beveridge needs updating in order to stay relevant.

Public services today are strained. The government and local authorities struggle to deliver services and programmes to those who need it, as Beveridge’s Giants converge on those members of society who are most isolated. Routes out of poverty are now less direct than Beveridge might have intended, with in-work poverty soaring as benefit cuts continue. Austerity, coupled with demographic trends – especially a growing population where people live longer– has created an imbalance between the government’s ability to provide services and the growing demand for them.

There is untapped potential in community-based assets. For too long public services have been delivered to people, instead of with people. People feel disempowered and disconnected, and encounter public services where the standard response to a problem is rather one-dimensional: send in a paid professional with no further community- or neighbourhood-based support.

Tackling these challenges means combining thought with action. That is why Nesta has championed the model of people helping people – mobilising the time and talents of citizens to co-deliver public services and social outcomes through voluntary action alongside the state.

We think public services are best where skilled professionals, the public and volunteers work together – in fact we think ‘people-powered public services’ is the only sustainable future for public services. People-power exists alongside – and never instead of – public services and a strong welfare state that guarantees minimum standards. And people-power is about more than just formal volunteering – it is also about the small roles citizens and neighbours can play in helping each other, engaging citizens in decision-making processes, using data to inform policy and to evidence outcomes, and generating ideas through collaborative processes to solve problems (e.g. collective intelligence).

We all have a role to play in tackling the Five Giants today. Through volunteering and social action, we can be creative and innovative in devising approaches and solutions to the challenges we face as a society.

Beveridge too was wise to the potential of voluntary action to strengthen and enrich our social sphere. In 1948 he wrote Voluntary Action, in which he observes that the state alone cannot meet all of society’s needs, and that volunteering has an important and distinctive role to play in tackling the Five Giants.

This idea of voluntary action is also present in the 1942 report, as Beveridge writes: "The State, in organising [social] security, should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility, in establishing a national minimum it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than the minimum for himself and his family."

Where Nesta builds on Beveridge is in recognising voluntary action as a community process as much as an individual one.

Nesta has backed a huge variety of innovations in social action. Through research and active engagement with communities and local authorities, we seek to make sense of the opportunities and challenges of developing sustainable social support systems. With partners we seek to generate new ideas for how we can tackle the Five Giants. Through grant funding and participatory research we provide help to the most promising ideas and voluntary action projects so that they can grow, adapt, and work in practice. And we seek to communicate our findings and activities with as broad a public as possible in order to inspire system change – towards a relational rather than transactional state in which public services are redesigned to make mobilising the energy and contribution of the public a core organising principle.

Tackling Squalor (or, housing and urbanisation): Through the Innovation in Giving fund, we supported innovations that bring about a step-change in levels of giving and exchange, and which have a credible route to being self-sustaining in the longer term. For example, Dot Dot Dot Property is helping people who volunteer find places to live, by placing them in properties which would otherwise be empty, on a temporary basis.

Tackling Disease (or, health and social care): Through the Second Half Fund, we are supporting innovations that help people aged 50+ to age well, while helping their local neighbourhoods, children, and families. For example, Aesop’s 'Dance to Health' project (photo below) incorporates evidence-based falls prevention exercises into high quality, creative and sociable dance for older people to improve health and wellbeing outcomes and reduce loneliness and isolation.

Tackling Want (or, the challenges of poverty): Through the Savers Support Fund, we are supporting innovations to scale proven social action programmes that improve money management skills and reduce debt for individuals and families. For example, the Christians Against Poverty life skills programme helps groups of people save money together for specific projects or needs, improving financial resilience for people struggling with a low income.

Tackling Ignorance (or, education and skills): Through the Click Connect Learn fund, we are supporting innovations that use digital technology to enable volunteers to tutor disadvantaged pupils, to improve their grades at school. For example, Tutorfair has developed an 'on demand' tutoring service where volunteers help students with GCSE subjects delivered through an app.

Tackling Idleness (or, the future of work): Nesta recently published a report on how employment is likely to change in the future (Future of Skills). Pathways to employment and the development of skills are components of many of the projects we fund; for example, Volunteer it Yourself connects volunteer tradespeople – often over 50 – with young people to pass on vocational skills while improving and regenerating communities through building projects.

All of these programmes do something to offer protection from Beveridge’s Five Giants, but (to echo the words of panelist Derek Fraser) perhaps not in ways Beveridge would have anticipated or approved.

Through research, partnerships, funding early-stage innovations, scaling ideas that are proven, and impact investing we seek to back innovative projects that increase the resources available to achieve social goals, give public services access to new expertise and knowledge, reach new places and people that public services cannot reach, create better services and reciprocal value for the people who give their time, and help to create fundamental change in the way we respond to social needs and challenges.

Image credit 1: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer (Wikimedia Commons)

Image credit 2: London School of Economics Library (Wikimedia Commons)

Image credit 3: Aesop 'Dance to Health' Programme (Aesop)


Juliet Ollard

Juliet Ollard

Juliet Ollard

Data Justice Senior Researcher, Data Analytics Practice

Juliet was a senior researcher in the Inclusive Impact unit within Nesta’s Data Analytics Practice.

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Antony Declercq

Antony Declercq

Antony Declercq

Citizen Engagement in Public Services Intern, Innovation Lab

Antony was the Citizen Engagement in Public Services intern at the Innovation Lab. In his role at Nesta, Antony supported the delivery of both existing programmes such as the Second Ha…

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