Pondering Big Society


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I doubt I’m the only person to be a little baffled by the concept of the ‘big society’. Having spent a considerable amount of time both as a volunteer and then working for a voluntary organisation I have and do absolutely support, accept and promote the idea of social engagement and creating a better place to live in. I want to create a better country to live in though not only a better community to live in. The two are not, of course, mutually exclusive and should go hand in hand.

In an attempt to combat my ignorance, I decided to actually read through the Building Big Society document to get a better grip on the meanings and general proposals at hand.

I have to say my little internal radar lights started flashing when I read that

‘We will introduce new powers to help local communities save local facilities and services threatened with closure and give local communities the right to bid to take over services threatened with closure’.

Goodbye libraries, goodbye library assistants – it was nice knowing you. Now, if you remain open, we will see if we can find anyone who has some time to volunteer for a job that was previously held by someone. This is of course, already happening. I don’t want to be cynical but this doesn’t look very ‘liberating’ to me.

Perhaps these jobs will be replaced by the ‘community organisers’ who will be trained (although we don’t know if this will be paid role or a voluntary role – perhaps I can take a guess).

‘and support the creation of neighbourhood groups across the UK, especially in the most deprived areas’.

I can without any doubt claim to live in one of the most deprived areas in the country. There is actually a fairly strong community identity where I live – it’s one of the things that really appeals to me about living where I do (even though, when I tell people where I live, they sometimes visibly express distress or concern!). People often don’t engage with community groups because they don’t always have the time to between work, childcare, carer roles and other stresses of day to day life – not because of a wish to disengage with the community.

I wonder what magic these ‘community organisers’ will drum up. My other observation is, living in one of the strongest Labour areas, how much appetite there will be for this simply because it is politically driven and is ‘Cameron’s baby’. That draws a lot of scorn in some places!

The part of the document that made me roar with wry laughter was the section about devolving power from the central to the local government.

‘We will promote radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government’.

Really? By freezing council tax receipts and slashing all budgets to local authorities. The means have been whipped away from local authorities to actually DO anything other than the very barest of essentials. Change costs. No-one has money.

I really don’t mean to be overly cynical. I just can’t help it. But this isn’t all about cosy togetherness, it is about an erosion of the expectations of what the state will and should provide. That is ideological. ‘Big Society’ did not start with Cameron or the Conservative Party. It is not a ‘new idea’. There has been decades of committed community involvement going on – after all, the trade union movement itself grew from an ideological viewpoint of creating a voice and community action for people who had a commonality of interests.

There needs to be a recognition of the different ways that reliance on the voluntary sector will look in inner city deprived areas as opposed to wealthy Home Counties commuterland towns and isolated rural communities.

On Wednesday, the Guardian printed a letter from a group of social work academics and social workers opposing a scheme of using  volunteers in child protection work the letter explains,

Loughton (Children’s Minister)  claims he is “not asking for an army of volunteer social workers to take the place of professional social workers”, but that is precisely what this government’s strategy is – to cut workers in the welfare state. “The introduction of volunteers to supplement the work of frontline child protection officers was an example of how the Tories’ ‘big society’ might work in action and would save local authorities money,” your article reports Loughton as saying.

And so it starts. Does Big Society becomes a hollow metaphor for pushing responsibilities onto ‘volunteers’ no doubt boosted by the high unemployment rates as people turn to voluntary positions to get some kind of work experience or are forced to so that they don’t loose their benefit entitlement?

Motivation through compulsion is of a different quality to active engagement for positive reasons. When we place vulnerable people in the hands of volunteers, we do need to be aware of the issues of power balance, motivation and potential risk.

In the example above, where there is a proposal for volunteers to work actively in child protection, I worry that the  process, function and soul of social work is at danger of being lost as the relationship-building is farmed out to volunteers and the qualified practitioners focus on the ‘paperwork, forms, courts’ etc.

The letter goes on to say that

The minister acknowledges a very troubling fact within child protection work – that social workers “can only afford the snatched half an hour visit every week” – yet the need for skilled professional social workers to spend more time with children and families is one of the key messages from numerous child death inquiries. Such contact is less likely to happen with financially driven initiatives such as the minister is proposing. Money-saving schemes could well see the law of unintended consequences realised, with traumatic results for children and social workers once again taking any blame.

Surely the answer is for social workers to have more than the ‘snatched half an hour visit every week’ to grow relationships rather than replace these visits with volunteers.

My hope is that there may be a role for social work in the creation and development of community organising – that we can and should take a role where are jobs are in the ethereal constantly moving state (in adult services anyway) in working heavily in local communities.

My fear is that it is an attempt by the government to fill the gaps of need with vague ideas that are difficult to challenge. We need to know where these voluntary groups are coming from and where their funding is going to lie.

8 thoughts on “Pondering Big Society

  1. Sounds like the idea of having conscripts from Workfare enlisted as child care agents for the state would be a charter for abuse. Many would not get through a full CRB check. Who would be supervising all these unqualified unpaid staff? Not thought this through have they?

  2. There seem to be a lot of gaps and some very important questions. I thought the letter to the Guardian was quite good at addressing them to be honest.

  3. As Jo Johnson said, there is the germ of a good idea there, but it is not properly thought through.

  4. It costs a lot of money to ensure you have a well coordinated and proficient volunteering service.

    Volunteers are amazing people in general, however they need training, insurance (we live in a claim society), CRB checks, someone at the end of the phone. They need protecting and this costs. The Big Society is an idea that sounds good until you start to unpick it.
    My volunteers are invaluable, so is the service they expect and get from my organisation.

  5. I’m a long retired social worker and have arrived at these blogs by accident but a great deal of what people are talking about, the ambiquity, the inability of involving people on the receiving ends of often not-very-help services and our inability to think about the benefits of community social work seem to me very attractive. There’s something about determinism and the genes as far as I’m concerned in terms with ‘trustee-ships’ coming out of my ears but, too often, there’s a total lack of anyone in these ‘vol-orgs’ to work together, think about the history of co-operation, think constructively aloud about the potential social enterprises, empathic businesses, the independent sector et al more of whom know nothing about working from the principles of community development/social work theory and practice.

    I’m living in Cambridge now, have a lot of time since my wife died, and am still interested in the relationship between community developments thinking and social work. Have also recently spent some time in a ‘caring capacity’ thinking with the local university’s social work dept (no not that one – who take no interest whatsoever in thinking about causation, radical social work or its inter-disciplinary skills, about so-called ‘student teaching’ and all that) but whom, sadly, seem to me to be ignoring these issues…

    I think, among many other things we’ve got our language wrong and shouldn’t think about aping professionalism. Sure we should enjoy the skills of being a ‘trade,’ think more about full participation of so-called ‘clients’ and challenge the status quo more. Far more than we do at present…

  6. I’ve spent most of my career in health and social care. I’ve maintained my charity direct debits even at times when I’ve been utterly skint, and I frequently use my annual leave time to do voluntary work.

    so naturally, I greatly appreciate a bunch of lawyers and career politicians telling me what my responsibilities to the community should be.

  7. I think voluntary child-protection would be catastrophic.
    Many dysfunctionaal families would suck the volunteers into their choas, quite unwittingly. There’s already a lack of support and proper “supervision”. with amateurs it would be a nightmare. If people are doing work, pay them a fair rate for the job.
    Our most vulnerable children should not be guinea-pigs for unevidenced, back of an envelope, Tory ideas

  8. Thanks again for the comments. I am inclined to agree with you all! Peter, I am increasingly coming round to the ‘being proud of being a trade’ rather striving for a profession. For me, the importance is in the effect of my intervention rather than social status attached to a job title. I didn’t become a social worker to be loved. I have some books and articles on radical social work to read over the christmas period. This writing is inspiring me to think of different ways to ‘change the world’.

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