The Big Society

What is it?

The concept of the Big Society has been ridiculed by some for being political jargon, a smoke-screen for Government cuts and a return to Victorian values. On the other hand some people have praised it for giving the voluntary sector a high profile and for highlighting the sector's work in helping to deliver vital local public services. The concept of the Big Society clearly means different things to different people. In order to be in a position to consider its potential impact upon the voluntary sector, first we need to understand what the Big Society really means.

The Big Society Network

The Big Society Network was launched in March this year. It insists that it is independent from the state and that its aims are not to pursue the Conservative party's political agenda. It will need to convince the Charity Commission that its aims are non-party political if it is to successfully apply for registered charity status. The concept of the Big Society has been criticised for having no discernable framework. It appears that the creation of the Big Society Network is intended to provide an independent legal framework through which to deliver the Big Society idea.

The Big Society Network already faces an uphill struggle to challenge public perceptions of its independence. Its series of town hall tours was scrapped following reports that its first event at Stockport College descended into chaos because some people seized the opportunity to use it as a public platform to voice their angry opposition to government cuts. The tours are now to be replaced with "more targeted" consultation workshops delivered with "appropriate partners" which will lead to pilot projects. 

The Big Society Network has been criticised for failing so far to engage actively with key voluntary organisations and for trying to bend organisations to adopt its agenda. Until it engages fully with the voluntary sector it will be difficult for it to successfully overcome this perception. It will be interesting to see how the consultation events are advertised and to whom they will be targeted. For example, will local voluntary organisations be approached and invited to attend, and if so will a wide range of voluntary organisations be invited in terms of aims, structure, size etc or will the consultations be open to anyone who expresses an interest in attending and participating? 

There could be opportunities for local voluntary organisations to get involved with some of the pilot projects, perhaps in partnership with other local organisations. This raises all the usual legal issues in the context of voluntary organisations collaborating with each other, some of which may be charities, some of which may not (e.g. powers to collaborate, structural issues, compatible aims and ethos etc). 

The Three Principles of the Big Society

The Big Society Network states the core principles of the Big Society being:

"1. Empowering individuals and communities: Decentralising and redistributing power not just from Whitehall to local government, but also directly to communities, neighbourhoods and individuals.

2. Encouraging social responsibility: Encouraging organisations and individuals to get involved in social action, whether small neighbourly activities like hosting a big lunch to large collective actions, like saving a local post office;

3. Creating and enabling an accountable state: Transforming government action from top-down micro management and one-size-fits-all solutions to a flexible approach defined by transparency, payment by results, and support for social enterprise co-operatives."

Principle 1 - Empowering Individuals and Communities

Local people are encouraged to seize the initiative and not to look automatically to the State to solve any problems or shortcomings in their local communities. This principle encourages people to just "get on with it" and be empowered to look for solutions themselves. It is nothing new and some of the most successful voluntary organisations are founded upon, and have thrived upon, this principle. Whilst it seems a little bit patronising that this principle is being presented as a novel idea, raising its profile and highlighting instances of its implementation should encourage others to take inspiration.

This ideology is viewed with suspicion by some people in the voluntary sector and it is impossible to ignore the impact of the recent comprehensive spending review. In a climate of anxiety and uncertainty about funding, the notion of "Big Society Not Big Government" could be perceived as a smoke-screen to cover public services cuts. There is a fear that the Government is looking to increasingly cash-strapped voluntary organisations to fill the gaps that will emerge once the actions set out in the review are implemented. Paul Twivy, the Big Society Network`s Chief Executive, has emphasised that its role is to "complement not supplement" existing social action. 

Interestingly, because it receives no public funding the Big Society Network is apparently endeavouring to secure funding in the same way as many other voluntary and community organisations. We do not know where the Big Society Network`s funding is coming from, other than it has been reported that it has secured some funding from private individuals and is applying for grants from trusts, foundations, the Big Lottery Fund and businesses. If it is applying for grants it could be argued that this somewhat contradicts the message it sometimes seems to be trying to convey (i.e. that voluntary organisations should not be dependent upon grant funding). 

Principle 2 - Encouraging Social Responsibility

Organisations and individuals are encouraged to get involved in their local communities and play an active role in society. There has been a lot of commentary on this and the focus appears to have been on volunteering. Concern has been voiced that volunteers should not replace professionally-trained employees, particularly where specialist public services are being delivered. Furthermore there has been some criticism about volunteers being required to pay for their own Criminal Records Bureau checks which is yet another disincentive in cash-strapped times for people to volunteer their time.

The rhetoric behind principle 1 is repeated that individuals should consider how they can make a difference or provide practical solutions to their local communities' problems instead of looking to Government for the answer. For example if it is proposed that the local Post Office be closed and there is a strong local campaign against this, it encourages people to look to how they might put in place a plan of action to save it rather than expecting the local Government to step in and do the work for them. 

This is nothing new in the voluntary sector, where strong community support, enterprise and hard work can, and do regularly make a difference. Hopefully the Big Society rhetoric and the case studies on the Big Society Network's website will inspire more people to make a difference by engaging with local voluntary organisations and offering their support and fresh ideas.

Principle 3 - Creating and Enabling an Accountable State

This is the trickiest of the 3 principles to decipher and, if nothing else, provides the most entertainment in interpreting the waffle.

Once again the repeated references to management of issues at a local level appear to be appealing to people to seize the initiative themselves instead of looking to Government for all the answers. The Big Society Network's reference to transforming Government action from "one size fits all" is presumably supposed to mean that each local community`s needs are different and that there is no one single solution to overcome all of society`s problems. What it appears to be suggesting is that local people are the best judge of what best for their local community and what will work. If a service is threatened with closure because of budget cuts then if local people really want it, they are being encouraged to get out, work together and identify a financially viable solution without expecting a chunk of funding to come from out of nowhere to solve the problem.

How might the Big Society Impact Upon Voluntary Organisations?

Although the ideology behind the Big Society is nothing new to the voluntary sector it has put voluntary organisations firmly in the spotlight. In a climate where grant funding is drying up, some people are still uncomfortable with the notion that voluntary organisations, especially charities, should operate more like businesses (i.e. commercially) in order to survive. The widespread phrase "not for profit" perhaps hinders understanding. Whilst profit is not the aim of a charitable organisation, if an organisation does not operate with at least a small surplus it cannot develop its services or put aside sufficient reserves for when times get tight. The phrase "non-profit distributing" would be more constructive in that it the aim is not to distribute any profit to private individuals, but to use assets and plough any surplus back into the organisation to help it to achieve its charitable aims and remain sustainable. 

Voluntary organisations which have been dependent on public sector funding for a long time face the biggest challenges. The Government has announced that as part of the comprehensive spending review, despite reduction in the Cabinet Office budget, additional funding will be made available to "build the capacity" of the voluntary sector. As part of this, a £100 million transition fund will apparently provide short-term support to voluntary organisations delivering public sector services. The Government will also apparently pay and tender for more services by reference to results, will not always be the default provider, and will look at whether specific services should be delivered by independent providers, including voluntary organisations.

This could provide opportunities for voluntary groups, but it is still hard to reconcile this against a back-drop of spending cuts. It remains to be seen how the "transition funds" will be allocated and how smaller voluntary organisations will be able to compete and bid for public sector contracts. Some smaller voluntary organisations are looking at how to come together and form partnerships or specific purpose vehicles to bid for and deliver public sector contracts and we could see an increase in this once the review is finally implemented.

So none of the rhetoric is new to the voluntary sector. It remains to be seen exactly how the Big Society Network will engage with the voluntary sector and "complement" rather than "supplement" the sector's activities. How it engages, especially through its consultation workshops replacing the town hall tours will be vital to the Big Society Network's success and by implication, the success of the Big Society as a whole. The voluntary sector will not cease to exist if the Big Society Network ultimately fails. If however the sector endorses some of the Big Society Network's stated aims, perhaps it will come out of what have been the toughest of economic times in better shape.

Posted on: 23/12/2010

This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.

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