On Monday, the front page of the Guardian carried a story about a scheme being proposed in Windsor & Maidenhead where new volunteers get Nectar Points in exchange for carrying out good works: hold a tea party for pensioners, get money off at Argos.
Posts Tagged: big society
Like many people, I imagine, I spent lot of yesterday evening answering the door to children in a variety of hideous costumes squealing ‘”trick or treat?” Unlike in previous years, I had anticipated it and spent a fiver at the local shops on an assortment of tooth-rotting gunge to hand out as insurance against getting the front door splattered with raw egg, or worse.
There are a couple of striking things about the new hundred-million-pound Transition Fund for the voluntary sector, announced in the yesterday comprehensive spending review yesterday.
The first is that it happened at all, given the overall 19 per cent cut in public spending over the next four years. The civil society minister, Nick Hurd, has done well to secure it.
The big society was the big theme of the fringe events at the Conservative Party conference this year.
All kinds of groups managed to shoehorn the phrase into their events: health charities, think tanks, social enterprise groups, local government bodies, housing firms and welfare-to-work providers all used the magic words. So did Starbucks, by hosting a debate on big brands and the big society.
David Cameron’s speech to the conference gave the big society a similar prominence. I counted nine uses of it.
But the reaction from the audience suggested party members were less enthusiastic about the idea than the Prime Minister was.
Cameron had, as expected, received loud applause for his statements on foreign policy, the deficit, Labour and Europe. But his big society announcements, including a Citizen University and International Citizen Service (which were among a very small number of new policy announcements in the speech) got a lukewarm response.
Granted, those statements were not designed to be rabble-rousing in the same way that statements on the Lockerbie bomber and Labour’s failings were. But they seemed to pass by unnoticed, with quiet, polite applause at best.
They seemed to have been written into the speech as padding, or – worse – a way of bringing in some light, happy policy news when the spending review was preventing the government from announcing anything else.
The big society was undoubtedly popular among the policy types, the think tanks and the lobbyists at the conference. But it’s not about them: the philosophy is based on grass-roots, local activists getting passionate about an issue and taking action. If it’s going to catch on, Cameron needs to start getting the party’s rank and file excited.
Many people in the voluntary sector will feel a small glow of satisfaction at the election of Ed Miliband as Labour leader, no matter what they think of his politics, the mode of his election or the fraternal ‘psychodrama’.
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.
Is the government’s much-vaunted anti-red tape, common-sense message starting to filter through to the world of local authorities?
At a big society-themed fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat party conference this weekend, an employee of Wirral Borough Council cited an interesting example of the message reaching the grass roots.
She said a local community group had called to ask the council’s permission to erect a gazebo at a fundraising event it was holding. She admitted that she had groaned inwardly at the prospect of the health and safety checks she would have to arrange, and the forms she would have to fill out, in order to grant the permission.
But when she contacted another council department to make the arrangements, the response was surprising.
“Just let them get on with it and tell them to use a bit of common sense,” the official said, much to her approval.
Is Wirral a rare exception, or are councils around the country cutting red tape in response to the government’s big society agenda? And do charities welcome this, or are they worried that they’ll be the ones to blame for any accidents or mistakes that result from it?
Last night I went to Lambeth town hall in London for the first of a series of public meetings by the council to discuss its plans to become a co-operative.
In practice, the plan means the council will launch a series of pilot projects in which local residents run public services, and will look favourably on other local voluntary and community groups that identify services they think they can run better than the council.
The 70 or so local residents that gathered in the crowded room to discuss the idea seemed keen. But more than one of them said the plan sounded very close to the governmentâ€™s big society agenda – considered surprising since Lambeth council is Labour-controlled.
Council leader Steve Reed did his best to put some clear blue water between the council and the government. â€śBig society is about rolling back the state, whereas this is about changing the role of the state,â€ť he said.
He was backed by fellow councillor Paul McGlone, who said: â€śBig society is people doing something for nothing, and we donâ€™t believe in that.â€ť
Both were keen to say that, despite the recent announcement that Lambeth would cut its voluntary sector funding for young peopleâ€™s services by up to 35 per cent from January, the co-operative plan was not just about saving money. It was a better, and more cost-effective, way of providing services, they insisted.
Lambeth is a good place to pioneer the co-operative council model: there is already a strong voluntary sector locally, and a tradition of community activism.
But if the plan proves successful, might the coalition government look beyond party politics and encourage other local authorities to do the same?
I woke this morning to hear charities leading the news.
It did not turn out to be quite as interesting as it first seemed. Previews of David Cameronâ€™s comments about the big society contained mainly re-heated announcements, such as setting up a big society bank.
But there was some interesting new information, such as the establishment of â€śvanguard communitiesâ€ť â€“ a great piece of bureaucratic jargon.
Cameron also speaks about â€śpushing power down and seeing what happensâ€ť. Well, judging by whatâ€™s happening currently we can tell him: carnage.
Barely a day passes without news of more cuts by local authorities. London Councils, Croydon Council and Slough Borough Council are among the latest to pass on the impact of funding reductions to the voluntary sector. Often at local level the Compact has been ignored.
The government has considerable faith in the voluntary sector, whatever its motives.
But it brings back memories of a comment made by former third sector minister Kevin Brennan a few years ago. He said that one of the things Labour learned was that you couldn’t just pull a lever in Whitehall and expect things to happen locally.
Finding ways of bridging this gap between what national government wants and local government can manage is likely to remain one of the major stumbling blocks to building the big society.
The plan is a set of apparently cast-iron policy guarantees that the third sector can rely on.
It includes 14 measures to bring about the prophesied big society, which if they are kept will have largely transformed the third sector by the middle of next year.
The measures include initiatives to reduce bureaucracy for small charities by autumn, a fund for communities by Christmas, a new generation of community organisers in the new year, and a functional Big Society Bank before the chocolate eggs are opened on Easter morning.
Given the propensity of governments to miss targets by a country mile, the list appears to offers several substantial hostages to fortune. It would be amazing if all these targets were hit.
It is more likely that as pressure grows, resources are cut and deadlines approach, many of them will recede into the distance like the end of the rainbow.
One in particular which seems optimistic is the promise to set up a Big Society Bank in ten months.
Itâ€™s a great idea which really needs to happen, but before the first funds can be committed, a lot of infrastructure must be constructed â€“ there are offices to be chosen, staff to be hired, innumerable legal hurdles to be overcome.
The money that is to be lent must also be extracted from the vaults of a group of recalcitrant banks that are noticeably short of cash.
The Big Society Bank is the first creation of its kind, a cutting-edge concept which could be the envy of the world. And because it is cutting edge, it will run into a huge number of unexpected hurdles which will need to be overcome on the way, and which have probably not been factored into this plan.
Iâ€™m willing to bet Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, a tenner that there will be no funds from the Big Society Bank available by April. Iâ€™m pretty confident my moneyâ€™s safe â€“ although itâ€™s a bet Iâ€™d be happy to lose.