Big Society


So here we have the phrase that Cameron wanted to become a catchphrase during the election but somehow got lost possibly due to public indifference. However, now it’s back to bite.

Cameron launched his ‘Big Society’ initiative a couple of days ago. He uses all the right language of course. It is about a devolution of power and influence over local matters from central government to smaller communities.

As he said in  his speech in Liverpool

‘The big society … is about liberation – the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street,”

Sounds great so far. As for the details as well as giving some examples of this ‘Big Society’ in action, for example, people in Cumbria buying their own local pub or Liverpudlians opening up some museum services with volunteers.

The idea seems to be to open up the spirit of philanthropy and volunteerism. Money from ‘dormant bank accounts’ will be used to fund some of these projects and plans.

I was sceptical during the election campaign and I remain sceptical now.

Firstly, I am a great fan of voluntary work and voluntary services. I have been directly involved in many voluntary projects and personally developed my own career extensively based on experience as a volunteer. I love it.

But, and this is a big but, I was able to volunteer as my personal financial circumstances at that period of time allowed it. I was in a fortunate enough position to be able to self-fund the work I did as a volunteer.

Is volunteering a luxury then? Not necessarily – those were my own personal circumstances but I am well aware of many many people who manage to work full-time/run a household and find time to input directly into voluntary services. Maybe it’s just me that wouldn’t have the time and energy to do so but I wonder if there is a whiff of middle class morality about it all. Not in all cases, but the example of the pub being bought out by locals certainly seems to pitch the community at a certain level of income.

My other concern is one that relates both to the area I work in and the area I live in. This is as inner-city as it gets. There are some very strong community groups who could easily gain ground both by being active in particular pockets and having the time to invest in the structures of this new ‘big society’ programme that would perhaps, disadvantage minority groups living in areas where there are large homogenous majority communities.

The other concerns relate to reliance on the third sector – this point has been raised in The Guardian . It’s obvious why the government would like to place hopes in the voluntary sector. Often voluntary groups can be ‘closer to the ground’ but do they have more authority that local government? It might be a cheaper way to run things. Currently – and I’m referring to the sectors I am personally aware of – the local authority might well commission local charities to do pieces of work for them or provide services – the Alzheimer’s Society provide day centre support and carers groups for example and receive funding from the local authority. Local authorities are cutting down on spending and the money may come from these ‘big society’ projects from central government funding – oops, I mean ‘dormant bank accounts’ (by the way, is there REALLY that much money in these dormant bank accounts… ).

To the charitable sector, the funding may be cut from one source to be granted at another. Who is better placed to decide which local services are needed or required and what will be the bid process for these charities? The reason I am concerned is that I’ve seen some rather bogus organisations with charitable status – particularly religious groups to be honest. That concerns me.

I don’t want to be cynical about all these wonderful goals. I am a great fan of community work and working within communities. I am just concerned that some of the minority sectors and opinions might be missed in a bidding process for funding for grand ideas.

I really want to be proved wrong though.

It is a question of whether the conception of ‘Big Society’ will work as well in Tower Hamlets as in Tunbridge Wells?  Hopefully the Liverpool pilot will be the proof of the pudding..

4 thoughts on “Big Society

  1. What gets me about all this ‘Big Society’ stuff is that it’s been government policy for way over a decade. Blair was heavily influenced by the Communitarian thinking of theorists like Etzioni – remember all the the rights/responsibilities and duty rhetoric he used to come up with? Well the whole thrust of policy was giving a greater emphasis to what became known as the third sector. Some of this worked, but there has been one paradox at the heart of it… as voluntary sector organisations grow to meet the new challenges they become more like the state bodies they replace – more beauracracy, more paid (and professional) staff compared to volunteers, more targets. The end result is a debate that voluntary organisations have in the process lost what is distinctive – that closeness to beneficiaries being the most quoted loss.

    Cameron is fooling himself if he believes he can create a civic-society based on duty and volunteerism like some kind of 1950s imagined community. Even with the corn seed of forgotten money in bank accounts – will it really compare with the kind of funding that has gone before; Futurebuilders, Change Up, Supporting People and a whole heap of contracts for services?

    And then volunteers themselves, despite the growth of the sector (largely because of the above) the number of people volunteering has dropped. Volunteers are also ill equipped to deal with certain functions. Where I am the local authourity is trying to staff libraries with volunteers. This seems a simple job on the face of it, but having worked with a former librarian I know how challenging the job can be; dealing with all kinds of emergencies and anti-social behaviour. Then there is the question of why people volunteer, personal development, vocation – almost certainly, but as part of a project to reduce costs…. hmmmmm

  2. Thanks for that, Neil. I wonder if some of the volunteers come from people who can’t find work and need experience for employment. Staffing libraries with volunteers is also happening near me and it seems the council are pushing it as a way to get experience ‘to put on a CV’ which is a bit disingenuous at the least.
    I wonder if the idyll of the 1950s is somewhat rose-tinted. Of course, it would be wonderful to see the model working but I agree that previous models have been tried and been caught up in the admin, targets and budget snipping of local authorities.
    But at least local authorities are somewhat accountable through elections of members.

  3. That’s a really crucial point. For all its faults local government works on a system of democratic accountability via the ballot box, but this is being eroded by the alternate view of citizen as consumer rather than citizen as voter; making market choices between services, choosing your GP, choosing a school for your child etc. If were not careful we risk losing a chunk of the democracy we take for granted.

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