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Musings on the Big Society

November 2, 2010

As the new government settles into its stride, we are beginning to see some of their thoughts on volunteering be fleshed out.

Big Society is clearly at the heart of what is being spoken about. It is hard to fault an ambition to get more people involved in local communities, helping to set local agendas/priorities and giving more time to things that matter to us all. In fact, it is a laudable aim, but if has had a lukewarm reception and there remains a lot of uncertainty about what it actually is.

I have heard it suggested that Big Society should not be defined but should grow organically. This is fine, but it does lead to a lot of confusion. Given the ambition described in the previous paragraph, it is interesting to hear government ministers describe almost anything as Big Society as though by including the words the activity is validated. For example, at the Conservative Party Conference, Dr Liam Fox described the armed forces as a glowing example of Big Society – much as I respect the work done by our sailors, marines, soldiers and airmen (yes you can tell I come from a dockyard town) I am not sure that by doing their jobs they are doing Big Society. This sort of rhetoric is not helping. We need to have more leadership and better communication if we are to become a real Big Society nation.

I have worked/volunteered in and with community organisations for well over twenty years, and still do. I love this. Communities getting together to do things make a real difference to us all. But, there needs to be a word of warning. Often it is the people with the loudest voices and the most inclination to be heard who drive these (yes, I can be guilty as charged at times!). If Big Society is to work, it can’t only be these people who make things happen or set the future direction. At the moment, members of one of the community groups I am involved in have varying views on parking solutions, business occupancies of mixed use developments, licensing hours, street lighting – the best long term and sustainable results are probably not going to be the ones where the loudest nimby is followed (though these are the ones that the press talks to). Somehow we need to have consultation and representation for Big Society to work – this sounds like local government to me, though somehow it needs to become more localised and able to listen to solutions that might not fit a party political agenda. We need politicians to change the way they work, and we need to find ways to listen to those who feel voiceless.

Anyone who has worked in communities for any period of time will know that a bottom up people based approach to solving problems, developing local solutions and enhancing lives is not a quick fix. It will not happen overnight, it will probably not even happen during the life of a parliament. It will happen as the culture of the nation changes, and cultural change takes longer than just about any other. The trouble with long term solutions is that they do not fit into short term spending programmes (and realistically that is what a three year settlement is). We need a long term view on Big Society, and in support of this the next two paragraphs are vital.

I am going to try to avoid being cynical about Big Society being a mask for cuts. The Prime Minister is right that he has been talking about it for years. But Big Society is not necessarily Cheap Society or Small State Society. But in this phase of the economic cycle it can be hard to divorce the two. This morning I heard about a local authority cutting 60% of its budget for support of community groups, the very basis of Big Society. A couple of weeks ago at Devon Community Foundation Volunteer of the Year Awards we were reminded that volunteers give their time, but still need money to buy “stuff” (I loved that description) – and that is so true. People and organisations who take on a long term support role for Big Society need to be paid (most people cannot afford to work for nothing for ever). And development of new activities often needs frontloaded investment. I’m not saying that there should be no changes to the way that funding is allocated to community groups, charities, social enterprises and other Big Society organisations. But, as when we set up the NHS at a time of financial crisis, Big Society could change all of our lives for the better and is worth investing in now, next year, the year after that, next decade, and the decade after that.

I think the biggest danger that Mr Cameron and Lord Wei’s vision for Big Society faces comes from themselves. They have made it a political issue. For months before May 6th we were told that we lived in a Broken Society, within days of becoming Prime Minister we miraculously became a Big Society with local activity everywhere. The contributions that individuals across the country make to civil society should not be used on a party political basis; they are made by individuals off all party political allegiances and none and should be celebrated by all. If used by one party against another the principles can be damaged. And ultimately, we need all political parties nationally and locally to be working together to build Big Society. If Big Society becomes something that is specifically a Conservative response. If because of a change of government all initiatives by the previous government are rubbished and abandoned. If we do not have a policy connect between national and local government (even within the same party). If some activities are acceptable as Big Society, and others aren’t purely because of whether they are liked by a governing party. If members of one political party feel disenfranchised because of the politicisation of the rhetoric and delivery… The Big Society (or whatever else it is called) will not be supported, encouraged or fully adopted. Mr Cameron, as Prime Minister you hold the power, within the coalition it is your Conservative ministers and advisors who are leading on the Big Society agenda – it is down to you to take the lead and stop using Big Society for party political purposes.

Big Society needs to be all of us. As individuals, the choices we make in how we engage in the engagement-participation-volunteering continuum makes a difference to local decision making, services and quality of life. The ways in which we choose to spend our money, and the choices we make about work can help or hinder Big Society. All sectors contribute to the Big Society agenda. New ways of doing government, commerce, business, and organisation in civil society need to work together for the good of everyone, not just the good of a few. Whether it is good governance, better corporate social responsibility or excellence in working for the beneficiaries of civil society organisations we can all contribute to a fairer and bigger society… I’m an idealist, I want things to be better than they are, I am driven to see everyone achieve their full potential as individuals and as a society. I’d like our community life to be bigger and better – but for the moment I’d settle for a fair, inclusive, properly resourced and non politicised Big Society.



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