Do We Have a Big Society?

In 2009, David Cameron laid out, as an alternative to big government, his plan to create a Big Society. In May 2010, following the general election victory, these plans were given pride of place in the coalition’s Programme for Government. This vision has prevailed through the hard times and the language has become commonplace.

Now, almost three years down the line, are we any clearer as to what the Big Society means? And do we welcome the idea?

A major pillar of the Big Society initiative is the increased role of the voluntary sector in providing more public services and developing social action programmes such as the National Citizens Service. It is obvious, therefore, that as a key player in its creation, voluntary organisations and others in the ‘third’ sector should have a clear idea of what the Big Society should be. A recently published report from the Third Sector Research Centre, which draws on a ‘Real Times’ survey, has noted that many chief executives and other charity staff have different ideas of what the Big Society concept is, while others are merely confused by the concept or have no idea at all.

David Cameron: what does he mean by "Big Society"?

David Cameron: what does he mean by “Big Society”?

But there are also bits of it that the third sector has firmer views about, and these points were agreed by many respondents to the survey. Firstly, in being promoted as a new idea, the Big Society overlooks much of the work that has been going on in the third sector for many years before. Secondly, there is much frustration concerning the cuts which restrict the abilities and capacity of third sector organisations. Finally, the concept seems to ignore or fail to take into account the risks and the costs associated with voluntary activity, and they do not recognise the need to properly train and support volunteers. There is also a lack of clarity as to where the Big Society idea will lead us in the future.

The idea of a big society, however, with a great role of the third sector, remains one that its members would like to see, even if it cannot be achieved with the cuts and lack of support currently. One Chief Executive interviewed said, “I think the general principles of the Big Society are fine, if you can understand what they are.” And many organisations see themselves as working towards achieving these principles, and, in doing so, as working towards the Big Society – or as close to it as possible at the moment. The concept of Big Society, then, seems to be a means to new possibilities for charities, whether in more clearly defining their work by using the language of the Big Society or by associating themselves more closely with the government; but there is confusion as to what the desired ends will look like or how they can be realistically achieved. Even if there is a lack of confidence or dislike of the agenda put in place, the third sector is seeking ways of working with it. They want to be able to stand the heat and remain in the kitchen. The principles have been around for a while, and are easy for many in the third sector to agree with, but, as the report notes, it is the ‘purpose, content and promotion of the Big Society’ that most people are ‘sceptical’ or ‘cynical’ of.

The feeling of the third sector towards the Big Society is therefore one of general hostility – even if they are willing to make the most of a bad situation, they do not like how the Government markets it. But the organisations are only one half of the group that will fulfil the greater role of the voluntary sector that the Big Society strives for. It is also important to note the view of the volunteers themselves.

With regard to understanding the concept of the Big Society, the view of volunteers was similar in some ways to the view of organisations – namely that they are confused or unclear about it. We have all heard the rhetoric, whether from the generally positive Governmental perspective or through the more critical assessments of the media. But the question posed to volunteers concerning what the Big Society actually is and how it has been embodied in Government policy or legislation has proved difficult for them to answer.

The overall feeling towards it has also been quite poor: 55 per cent of respondents to a Mass Observation survey of ‘ordinary citizens’ had a negative view of the Big Society, whilst only eight per cent were positive towards it. With just the views of active volunteers taken into account, the corresponding figures were 50 per cent and 13 per cent. Along with the belief that the content of the concept lacks clarity, a common thought is that the Big Society is a political stunt to shift attention away from the cuts or to shift responsibilities away from the Government. Nearly half of those surveyed also shared the third sector’s view that the principles that guide the idea are nothing new, and some revealed their frustration that there is not enough recognition of the voluntary work that was already ongoing before the Big Society initiative was born. Although some respondents commented that the Big Society may serve positive ends – for example, by reducing bureaucracy – the general feeling towards it was negative.

The majority also felt that there were problems in achieving it too – they either had no desire or lacked the capacity to take on extra volunteer work, and many felt the same about their local communities due to the cuts imposed by local councils. Many cited existing voluntary commitments or other informal duties, such as caring for their family, as the reason why they could not take on extra responsibilities. Indeed, there was a tension between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ volunteering, where the latter – mostly volunteering for the benefit of those to whom one has strong ties, such as family members – was usually prioritised. Only eight per cent felt that they could take on more voluntary work than they were already doing. So perhaps it is the case that, even if people do support the idea of the Big Society, they do not perceive (whether correctly or not) that they have the opportunity or the capacity to be involved in it.

Can local authorities provide for all their communities' needs?

Can local authorities provide for all their communities’ needs?

In terms of the local communities’ abilities to do more, often the perceptions of this depending on how affluent the community was – one respondent said that “There’s a kind of fatigue that’s come with being economically downtrodden, a fatalism.” Consequently, those who lived in more affluent areas were more inclined to volunteer, and their communities tended to consist of more voluntary activity. The cost of voluntarism was also a common reason cited as to why local communities could not or would not volunteer more. Most see it as the state’s duty to provide funds for volunteering – and, although the link between the Big Society and the cuts was not often made explicitly, the general sense was that there was not enough money for local authorities to provide for all their communities’ needs. There was also concern that the local authorities divert funds to those services where they feel the most pressure to deliver. Less vocal community groups or members may consequently be ignored, and voluntary work will not be able to address the issue of simply a lack of funds to provide for ‘worthwhile’ social action causes.

To answer the question as to whether we have a Big Society, we need to define the term. And this is the first problem faced by charitable organisations and volunteers alike. The principles and the ideal vision may be apparent and likeable, but the means to promote those principles and achieve that vision are not so obvious. And the perception of the Government and local authorities’ ability, or sometimes even willingness, to help is mostly negative, with the Big Society rhetoric seen as a distraction from the cuts, and not enough credit given to the voluntary work that organisations and individuals have been doing for years.

Are you or your community volunteering, and do you feel this is contributing to the creation of a Big Society? Do you have a clear idea of what the idea of a Big Society should be, and do you think such an idea is achievable? Leave us your comments below or talk to us on Twitter. And to find out how you can do more to help the Big Society come to fruition – or just to help out people in your community in need – register on the JVN website or call 020 8203 6427.

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Categories: The Third Sector, Volunteering Issues

Author:Mike

Hi, I'm Mike, JVN's Youth Co-ordinator and blogger. I'll be blogging about all sorts of issues affecting the volunteering community, with a particular focus on how recent developments might affect the UK Jewish community's volunteers. I'm always interested to read the comments you make. If you have something you want to see in the JVN blog, e-mail me at mike@jvn.org.uk and I'll be happy to talk. And if you're inspired by any of my blogs to volunteer, log on to www.jvn.org.uk and register to find your perfect volunteering opportunity.

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