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I don’t have time for the Big Society

Earlier this week, Sir Stephen Bubb, head of the chief executives body Acevo, delivered another blow to the government’s big society

In a letter to David Cameron, the Prime Minister, Bubb pointed out that the concept was “effectively dead” because the government had struggled to communicate it properly or implement it consistently. Bubb’s letter largely focused on the government’s failure to involve charities more in public sector reform or to protect them and their beneficiaries from crippling cuts to public spending.

However, one aspect that Bubb’s letter did not address was the role of the individual in the big society. When the big society concept was originally launched, much was made of the need for the public to become more active in their own communities and rely less on state support. A variety of ways were suggested about how they could get involved in their communities – from maintaining their local parks, to running libraries and providing assistance to elderly residents.

But all of these initiatives rely on one thing: people having time to give. In my experience, the weak economy of recent years has affected people’s lives in many ways, not least that many people in employment now find themselves having to work harder and longer just to make ends meet. Among my friendship group of late twentysomethings and early thirtysomethings – some with children and some without – few have the spare time or disposal income that they once did. As a result, weekends and evenings tend to be dominated by mundane chores and DIY,  leaving little time free for anything else.

In my own case, I estimated that I did more than 50 hours of volunteering in 2009 despite the arrival of my first son. Last year, this probably dropped to around five hours – and I am far from unique among the volunteers I know.

Last year’s Olympics may have given the concept of volunteering a boost but is this really likely to translate into more people becoming active in their communities, given the current financial strains that many households face? If the government is truly keen about reawakening this aspect of the big society, then it needs to start addressing some of the fundamental things that prevent people from giving their time, such as the rising cost of living. More also needs to be done to encourage companies to allow staff time away from the office – paid or otherwise – to volunteer in their communities.

As things stand, many people, especially those in full-time employment, just don’t have time to give time. And unless something significant happens, little will change.

  • Ivor Sutton

    It was my view, and should be the objective of the ‘big society’ plan, for both local and central government to be more effective in how it collaborates and communicates with the challenges confronting our communities, amid the social and economic obstacles we face. I too agree that this fundamental improve quality in collaboration between the groups always needs to be tested. After all, government needs to accept that in order to improve policy it has to collaborating not just with ‘big business’ or CEO’s, but also those ‘ordinary folk’ who have seen and felt the hardship and who have challenged the Unfairness and Injustice of Failure too. Integration with those who possess first-hand experiences of failed policies, and who have either become strengthen, or just tested, by such unfairness, should always be an imperative resource to obtain as part of forming policies and influencing practices and procedures in community focused businesses.

    It is my view that the ‘big society’ plan, has therefore only become a thesis that has failed to test such important barriers to the extent that we place a worthwhile trust in its intent and ability to show that it aims to acknowledge, test and support the desperate needs of the community. Its failure to develop a viable Work Programme in a market in which its ‘big society’ plan is meant to be in full and effective collaboration with, downgrades both the quality in collaboration, consistency and overall performance to understand the desperate upwards social mobility needs of the community.

    My view is, the ‘big society’ should be as much about providing a ‘hand-up’ by way of how it acknowledges and understands the aspirations and desperate goals sought in the community, as it also aims to provide a financial ‘hand-out’ to community projects aimed at improving social mobility in the lives of local people.

    The PM being in denial about the failure of the Work Programme both undermines the objectives sought in the ‘big society’ plan, and the desperate understanding and support even unemployed, skilled individuals seek amid the current economic and psychological depression.

  • Carl Allen

    Big Society has an aspect better described as a DIY Society and cannot be ignored since it has the nature of a diktat i.e. a harsh, unilaterally imposed settlement with a defeated party.

  • Chris Lee

    Where I think that pressure on time and money come together is within the burgeoning ‘sharing economy’ in communities. With 3 other (volunteer) moderators, we run a local freecycle group saving tonnes from landfill and meeting a need for thousands in our locality with little money to spare for new stuff – even the basics. In my opinion, the limited time we volunteer (on computers to fit around our day-jobs) is far far outweighed by the benefit to people and the planet.