Posts Tagged: big society

More proof is needed that the big society can be built with a nudge

Persuasion is better than compulsion in making good citizens. So said Conservative decentralisation minister Greg Clark last week.

It is hard to dissent from that. One of New Labour’s enduring flaws was an unerring tendency to pass a law if it came across any form of behaviour it didn’t regard as wholesome.

Clark was taking part in a seminar to introduce research from Manchester and Southampton Universities on how to nudge citizens into becoming civic-minded and participating in socially responsible activities. Nudge has quickly become one of the Conservatives’ emerging policy tools, so it was a tad ironic that the research was commissioned by Labour three years ago, then hastily re-branded into providing an evidence base for the big society. But let’s not dwell on that.

In fact, the results gave a mixed message on the feasibility of the government’s big society plans. Yes, things like praise, recognition and simply asking can induce changes in behaviour. The experiments showed impressive results in getting people to recycle more and give to charity, though it wasn’t exactly rocket science

But volunteering proved a much harder nut to crack. In one experiment, callers to a local authority call centre were asked if they would like to take action on community issues in their local area. Sixty-three people said yes, but by the time the voluntary scheme was launched six months later only one person actually got involved.

David Cameron has said he wants citizens to participate actively in running the country. But the economic downturn and coming cuts in public spending will mean those people still in work will be working longer and harder. A quick dose of virtuous civic engagement after dinner may not be top of many people’s agendas.
The “exhausted volunteer” doesn’t sound a like a goer, as Neal Lawson of the think tank Compass has argued.

Then there is the problem of equity. As one audience member at the seminar argued, the concept of fairness is lacking in the big society. She asked her partner if he would be prepared to volunteer, and his response was: “Why should I? Bankers caused the recession, politicians spend people’s taxes on second homes – let them do it”.

Or, as Nick Clegg put it before he got his new job, the big society is “a bit like being invited to a party in a pub and finding that it’s your card behind the bar paying for everyone’s drinks.”

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Large charities win contracts, but how does that square with big society rhetoric?

Are small charities better than big ones? Few questions provoke more ire.

Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, says it is a “senseless and divisive argument”.

But the new government seems to be following the path trodden by Iain Duncan Smith five years ago when he contrasted “bureaucratic and risk-averse” big charities with “the instinctive understanding” of small, local groups.

It was noticeable that small groups, rather than the sector monoliths, were invited to Downing Street to discuss the big society last month.

This month, Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, said the new Communities First fund would be “super-local, seriously neighbourhood-based and almost microscopically granular”.

I’m not quite sure what he meant but it didn’t sound like an invitation to Cancer Research UK to apply.

Yet charities still face pressure to get bigger and more centralised if they want to tango with the government.

The Alzheimer’s Society is a high profile example. It has tightened control over local offices, which has upset some volunteers but was done to improve accountability and enable the charity to win more contracts from the government.

I interviewed Jeremy Hughes yesterday, who, it was announced this week, is leaving Breakthrough Breast Cancer to become the society’s chief executive. He thinks cancer charities’ model of closer collaboration with government is the way to go if you want to win contracts and influence people.

It’s difficult to argue with that, yet it’s hard to see how it squares with the ‘big society’.

Like it or not, I suspect the size issue will be one of the key themes of the years ahead.

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The government’s decision on Refugee and Migrant Justice is reminiscent of the Thatcher years

David Cameron spent a lot of time in opposition playing down comparisons between his politics and those of the Thatcher government. When he came into power in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, it seemed their influence might strengthen the government’s credentials on social justice.

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Will charities be complicit in the public-sector jobs cull?

Could a little-noticed strike brewing in Southampton signify problems to come for the big society programme of the new government?

Earlier this week librarians were balloted on industrial action over the city council’s plan to replace six full-time staff with volunteers. The council says the move will save £137,000. The issue goes right to the heart of coalition plans to, in the words of education secretary Michael Gove, “harness the idealism of volunteers” and involve citizens in the running of public services just as the axe will be falling on public spending.

The Conservative manifesto promised to “empower communities” to take over amenities such as parks and libraries that were “under threat” – presumably from budget cuts. The Building the Big Society document, published by the coalition on Wednesday, reiterated this idea with a commitment to legislate to help communities save local facilities threatened with closure. This plan has been endorsed by many in the sector including community group umbrella body, Community Matters.

As Young Foundation director Geoff Mulgan noted at the Charity Finance Directors’ Group conference last Tuesday, the key issue for the sector is whether voluntary organisations back the transfer of previously tax-funded public services to groups of volunteers as the state reigns in its responsibilities. Mulgan gave the example of a bus service taken over by a semi-volunteer-led organisation. Is this a good thing?

There are a variety of issues. Will the public react positively to being asked to help deliver services that they thought they were paying to receive through their council tax? Will the sector be seen as complicit in making cuts? As noted by many pundits, the ‘big society’ did not play particularly well on the doorstep during the election campaign.

The Network of National Volunteer-Involving Agencies, which includes CSV, Barnardo’s and the National Trust among others, released a manifesto this week calling for more volunteering opportunities in public services.

That desire seems certain to be fulfilled. But will those opportunities include previously paid-for core jobs being delivered for nothing by hastily trained volunteers? The sector needs to decide where it stands, because the question will become pressing very soon.

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Nick Hurd claimed to be serious at his first meet-and-greet, but mutterings were audible

Earlier this week I went to the first meet-and-greet by Nick Hurd with the sector since his appointment as the new charities minister.

It wasn’t exactly at the coalface: it was a small gathering of around 50 senior charity staff at a smart central London hotel. But it was a good debut for Hurd. He charmed his audience by joking that the Downing Street launch of the ‘big society’ agenda was the first, and probably the last, time he’d have his bum on a seat at the Cabinet table.

He said he was not allowed to use the phrase ‘third sector’ any more because “the boss doesn’t like it”. And in a short speech, he reiterated his three priorities. You’ve guessed it: making it easier to run a charity; getting more resources to the sector and making it easier for charities to work with the state. “I know I keep repeating this, but I’ll repeat it until people understand,” he said.

The chatter after Hurd left (he dashed straight off to speak about workplace giving at a House of Lords dinner) suggested the sector has warmed to its new representative.

Guests welcomed his 18 months’ experience shadowing the post, saying they hoped this marked a break from Labour’s revolving door of third sector ministers. And they were glad that the rhetoric about supporting charities, at least, seemed to stem from Cameron himself.

But they raised doubts about whether Hurd’s well-intentioned words would translate into anything tangible. One senior figure expressed frustration that Hurd seemed to see volunteering as a catch-all solution without understanding that supporting volunteers and paying their expenses could cost charities as much as the minimum wage.

And many expressed serious concerns that government grants would be cut before they were due to expire, and that Cameron and Hurd’s enthusiasm for involving charities in service provision would not filter down to local authorities if the private sector offered similar services more cheaply.

In that context, Hurd’s words were perhaps carefully chosen: “I hope to send a serious message about our will and our serious intent.”

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Will the new Government stick with the ‘big society’?

At the weekend, some Tory MPs were complaining anonymously that the big society idea had not gone down well on the doorstep and might even have played a part in denying the Conservatives an overall majority.

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Cameron pushed his big society, but his charity audience was not convinced

Yesterday I watched David Cameron give a speech about his big society agenda at a meeting hosted by think tank the Centre for Social Justice. 

Previous announcements by the Conservatives about the idea have been relatively well-received by much of the national press, so I was interested to see how an audience that consisted largely of voluntary sector workers would respond. 

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Is David Cameron about to shelve the ‘big society’?

Headless chickens come to mind as we watch Labour and Conservatives running around in search of the best way to neutralise the Clegg effect. It’s brought the election alive in a slightly disturbing way – might we actually end up with something daring, like scrapping Trident or joining the Euro?

Of special interest to the voluntary sector is that David Cameron has not reached for his ‘big society’ idea as his party looks desperately for a way to revive its fortunes. Quite the opposite, if a story in yesterday’s Guardian is to be believed. It seems that the idea is being quietly pushed into the background.

Some of the remarks from unnamed shadow cabinet ministers are quite savage. “The ‘big society’ is bollocks,” one was quoted as saying. Another attributed the idea to manifesto supremo Oliver Letwin and commented: “We need to turn his Hegelian dialectic into voter friendly stuff.”

The ‘big society’ is a nice ideal – a society where we all care and share and participate. But it will always be seen by some as an unrealistic pipe dream, and by others as an elaborate fig leaf for ‘same old Tories, same old cuts.’ One things seems crystal clear: it’s not much of a vote winner in the current state of play.

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