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Big society means big change ahead

Lord Wei, the government’s big society guru, weighed in recently with a warning that some charities and social enterprises had become too bureaucratic because they received most of their funding from the state. “They have ended up becoming big charity, not big society,” he said.

This chimes with Conservative arguments in recent years about the “Tescoisation” of charities, and with the party’s often-stated preference for local, community-based organisations. This government does not much like larger charities that get state funding, many of which are contemplating the future with some trepidation.

Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, responded by arguing in his lecture last week that “big society requires big charity as well as local charity. Properly speaking, big society means new life being breathed into the state-charity partnership.” He urged the government not to forget that the partnership between the state and the third sector is rooted in our history, has enjoyed cross-party consensus and is crucial to the well-being of society.

As we await the public spending review, it’s hard to predict in any detail what’s going to happen. The government is committed, as was Labour, to making it easier for the sector to bid for public contracts on a level playing field. That’s good in its way, if it actually happens, but public contracts are likely to be fewer and smaller, producing a countervailing effect.

The Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, also told Third Sector recently that the government was keen to open up public services to new providers. But he emphasised that it was interested in “community-based solutions.” That doesn’t sound encouraging for the bigger voluntary organisations.

The most that can be said with certainty is that the state is going to shrink, and with it many parts of the sector that depend on the state. And when such large cuts are made so fast, many babies will go out with the bathwater.

  • Rob Dyson

    Completely agree Stephen. I have been surprised by Lord Wei’s very animated Partisan line on Big Society on his blog; despite being gently challenged by some to reach out and be inclusive to all political tribes if BS (bad acronym that) is going to carry resonance with *everyone*.

    In order to work (and it’s essentially an ideology rather than a strategy as far as I can see), surely best to err towards ‘welcoming’ not ‘tubthumping’? I think there’s an appetite in the sector to harness BS’s spirit, but we also have to be careful (in terms of the Charity Commission aside from anything else)to remain non-partial and non-political, so…

  • Omotolani Sulu

    Well said, Nick.