If the Big Society stories could slow down a little, I’d appreciate it. K thx bai

Events have overtaken me. Every time I’d make some notes for a new blog post a new Big Society story would trump the last one. This wasn’t helped by my increasing anger and need to turn off news items that mentioned or debated the topic.

On those lines I should make a public apology to my flatmates; I did find myself shouting at a debate on ‘Ten o’Clock Live’, particularly at the charity boss they’d found, Shaun Bailey, whose views made more sense when it turned out he’d been a Tory electoral candidate. When I say sense, I meant more in terms of at least you knew why he was saying these things, even if they were awful.

If you can bear it, go to about 34mins into this video. If you don’t have the time (or the patience with Channel 4’s player) here’s a choice quote:

If organised volunteering collapsed tomorrow it wouldn’t make a big deal because private volunteering goes on all the time. Is there anybody here who’s babysat? Do you look after your neighbour’s kids, you kept your sister’s kids while they’ve been ill? You help the woman down the road that’s volunteering, it happens all the time.

We all know that informal volunteering is an intrinsic part of our communities. The idea though that this is what could/should run public services is stunningly ignorant. It would be interesting to know if his charity involves volunteers or not, whether there’s any management or co-ordination of this, and whether they’ve picked up on legal and good practice issues from Volunteering England and Volunteer Centres.

But maybe I’m wrong. Forget organisation, forget volunteer management, we’ve been wasting our time.

Well, the anger levels are rising again, so I’ll put this to one side and carry on with the rest of the blog – the cat gets confused when I start shouting at my computer screen.

Most of the fuss has been about cuts to voluntary sector funding. Quite rightly of course, as it is an absurdity to talk of voluntary action when so many local infrastructure bodies are being not so much cut as eviscerated. Blaming local authorities is laughable. Government spokespeople were so wide eyed and shocked, shocked! that councils drastically reducing budgets would do this that I considered exploiting this naivety – I’d be quids in through emails claiming to be a treasury official in a foreign government looking to transfer a large amount into a handy bank amount. It’s especially hollow given that bodies such as Volunteering England were cut by, er, central government.

Anyway the ball started rolling with Elisabeth Hoodless’ leaving present to the sector. I have to say, it’s not often I’ve agreed with her public pronouncements, but she did us proud this time. The story splashed across the media. Something we all knew in the sector entered the public consciousness.

Mind you she did spoil it a bit – according to the BBC ‘she backed a US idea that ties the funding of public bodies with the number of volunteers recruited’.

Even Volunteering England, which normally finds the fence its most comfortable perch, sounded a critical note. Chief Executive Justin Davis Smith pointed out in the same BBC report that organisations were “having their capacity to deliver, to recruit more, to train, to support their volunteers taken away from them”, although he still supported the ambitions of the Big Society.

Government was prodded a little, and some extra money was announced. The phrase ‘too little, too late’ is well worn, but it’s definitely apt here.

What we’re in danger of missing is that the funding issue, while egregious, is not the central problem with the Big Society idea. For me it’s the very concept of using voluntary action to replace public services.

The key question remains: who will do this? Who will have the time and expertise to run these services? Surely those people with the time and inclination are broadly already volunteering. Will such projects end up merely poaching volunteers from local Age Concerns, advocacy services, befriending projects?

Whether by design or happenstance, or perhaps design, the plan amounts to a new form of privatisation.

Firstly it’s a way of expanding market principles further into the social sphere. This is an issue I have always had with some forms of social enterprises. There does seem to be an ideological kernel behind the concept (supported as much by the Labour Party as the Conservatives) – there may not be private profit, but the idea of market discipline is central.

Will volunteer effort be used to undercut other potential suppliers? Where does this leave volunteers? Where does this leave people in what are already low paid precarious jobs?

Secondly, where local services run by volunteers fail to deliver, I can’t believe they’ll be brought back under the public sector. The government’s reaction will be, well, we tried that, valiant effort there by the plucky community groups, but time for the big boys to come in. Private companies like Serco will be circling like hawks.

I don’t think I’m being that cynical to say that it makes this agenda sound so much nicer to talk of community groups running services than the private sector.

And to back up the last point, just as I was putting this post together I saw this story on the BBC website:

David Cameron: End state monopoly over public services

David Cameron has said the government will set out plans to allow private and voluntary groups to run almost every kind of public service

It won’t come as much of a surprise to the more forensic reader, but I don’t support the ambitions of the Big Society.

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2 responses to “If the Big Society stories could slow down a little, I’d appreciate it. K thx bai

  1. Interesting to hear Shaun Bailey enthusing about informal volunteering when, according to citizenship survey findings, the appears to have been a sharper drop in levels of informal volunteering than formal volunteering (http://www.nfpsynergy.net/reports_presentations/nfpsynergy_presentations.aspx).

    • Very good point. I think the decline in informal volunteering (at least as recorded in the citizenship survey) is something that needs further study – is it aligned with a decrease in income? An increase in inequality? Increasing precarity?

      But even if informal volunteering were stronger his point would still be absurd. Without even going into the replacement of public services he cannot honestly believe that it would be better for, say local Age UKs to forget their befriending projects because other people might do it informally.

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