Just what is the Big Society? The sum of a million small things. Apparently. Doesn’t sound much like a ‘big idea’ to me. But this is how Steve Moore of the Big Society Network (no, not sure I know what it does either) summed it up at the Convergence meeting on 15 February. And despite repeated requests to elaborate, that was pretty much all we got. In fact, Moore became extremely defensive when some of us said we still didn’t get it. So this could be an extremely short blog…
Before I go any further I should confess that I am a card-carrying member of the Labour party so I am bound to grab any opportunity to score some cheap political points however disingenuous they might be. But I did go along to the meeting genuinely prepared to be converted. After all, it’s hard to argue against at least some of the more concrete bits of David Cameron’s ‘defining mission’, such as local empowerment.
Sadly I left even more confused and still of the opinion that the Big Society, if it is anything, is just a cover for the cuts. I am not alone. A ComRes poll published on 14 February showed there is little love for the idea – 41 per cent agreed it was a cover for the cuts and 50 per cent agreed it is largely just a gimmick . It probably doesn’t really matter if it is or not, if people think it is then it has a problem.
One of my big concerns, which seemed to make Moore even more annoyed, is that there is a big difference between people getting together to run, say, a single mums’ support group once a week or campaigning for a 20mph zone, and making the commitment to take over a library, or even set up a school. We are not all Toby Young and most of us don’t have the time or the skills to take on these responsibilities (and there is also something a bit distasteful about saying enthusiastic volunteers can just pick up when the professionals, eg librarians, lose their jobs). I won’t even get into how I feel about letting parents set up schools all over the place. PS I am a parent.
Equally as absurd is expecting cash-strapped charities to step in where the public sector has had to step back. Moore repeatedly told me ‘there is no more money’. I read the papers, I know that. But for years charities, certainly the small, community ones expected to build the Big Society, have been unable to capacity build effectively because grants are always ring-fenced for specific projects.
I used to set policy for lottery grants and witnessed the absurdity of perfectly good charities having to reinvent themselves, repackage what they do and fill in reams of paperwork to get their hands on even the smallest amounts of cash. And then when the project was all over do it all again, possibly even for the same funder.
Now I am a trustee of a small legal charity and see it from the other side. So maybe volunteers are the answer? Well, much as we love lawyers volunteering (or providing pro bono work as they prefer to call it) what we really need is money to pay our excellent core staff, not city lawyers giving legal advice in an area they probably know nothing about. It comes back to the professionalism point. Some volunteering can do more harm than good.
I am also fearful that by relying on donations, financial or otherwise, we are unwittingly recreating the paternalistic Victorian philanthropists who chose between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. Moore was very adamant that there are undeserving poor (largely, of course, benefit cheats of which I am sure there are millions). But I think the distinction is more subtle than that and worthy of proper attention not just recourse to a Daily Mail headline.
Staff in my law firm recently voted for Barnardo’s as their national charity. Can’t argue with that – fantastic charity working with some of the most marginalised young people in the country. But a lot of people would give to Barnardo’s if you ask them. Far fewer people will give to their local Citizen’s Advice bureau or Victim Support or Crimestoppers, all ‘legal’ charities that you would think staff in a law firm would identify with.
And the same will happen locally. Services aimed at animals, young children, the local environment and leisure may do ok. Those dealing with the homeless, mentally ill or elderly may not. How do we ensure this doesn’t happen? Well we can’t really if it’s about volunteering…
So there you have it. My problem with the Big Society. It’s a shame I didn’t find a more convincing sparring partner . As it is, I think Cameron’s ‘defining vision’ is a load of hot air.