Category Archives: Big Society

Philip Pullman on the Big Society

The author was speaking last week at a meeting in Oxford on the County Council’s decision to axe almost half its libraries:

Nor do I think we should respond to the fatuous idea that libraries can stay open if they’re staffed by volunteers. What patronising nonsense. Does he think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea? Does he think that all a librarian does is to tidy the shelves? And who are these volunteers? Who are these people whose lives are so empty, whose time spreads out in front of them like the limitless steppes of central Asia, who have no families to look after, no jobs to do, no responsibilities of any sort, and yet are so wealthy that they can commit hours of their time every week to working for nothing? Who are these volunteers? Do you know anyone who could volunteer their time in this way? If there’s anyone who has the time and the energy to work for nothing in a good cause, they are probably already working for one of the voluntary sector day centres or running a local football team or helping out with the league of friends in a hospital. What’s going to make them stop doing that and start working in a library instead?

Especially since the council is hoping that the youth service, which by a strange coincidence is also going to lose 20 centres, will be staffed by – guess what – volunteers. Are these the same volunteers, or a different lot of volunteers?

This is the Big Society, you see. It must be big, to contain so many volunteers.

Full text here.


Do as we say, not as we do

Sometimes events satirise themselves.  The ‘Big Society Tsar’ is to reduce his volunteering hours in order to earn more money and ‘have more of a life’. In some ways it’s refreshing – usually politicians take a step back from responsibilities in order to spend more time with their family. It’s nice to hear one wanting to spend more time with their money.

Lord Wei was appointed by David Cameron as an unpaid government advisor on the Big Society last May, and is based in the Office for Civil Society.

According to The Guardian, “Whitehall sources said that when he was invited to take the role he had expected it to be remunerated but was told only the night before that it was a voluntary post and there would be no salary.” Mind you, I wouldn’t feel too sorry for him – he got a life peerage as part of the package, and it’s hard to imagine that he won’t be able to pick up some non-executive directorships.

The story does seem to highlight the absurdity of the wider-eyed visions of the Big Society. If the person at the top is finding it hard to make ends meet while giving up a substantial chunk of their time, and feels that doing so gives them no life, how are the rest of us meant to bear up?

While this story may have an amusement factor to it, another story from the last few days makes for much grimmer reading. Volunteering England have reported that 30 Volunteer Centres are facing closure or severe curtailment of capacity. To be honest, just from the VCs I’ve had contact with, I suspect the figure is even higher. I’m not looking forward to hearing the news come in of local authority spending settlements. While there is a proposed local infrastructure fund – £42.5 million over 4 years – it will be too little too late. Good organisations will have gone under by then, committed and knowledgeable staff moved on and local organisations left floundering. New groups will have to reinvent the wheel.

This of course follows Volunteering England itself losing over half its staff. The cutting of government funding for infrastructure bodies demonstrates the hollowness of the government commitment to volunteering. Volunteering needs support. Volunteer managers need support. Without bodies to pass on accumulated good practice – and legal guidance – new and old volunteer-involving bodies alike will be left to fend for themselves.

The Big Society and human nature

I’ve been reading around in preparation to write something in longer form about the Big Society. It’s taking me a while I’m afraid, but I thought I’d draw people’s attention to the essays the Government commissioned to tie in with the Giving Green Paper:
One paper in particular jumped out:

Geoffrey Miller, Psychology Department, University of New Mexico: Harnessing human nature for charity and volunteering: some ideas from evolutionary psychology

My eyes lit upon this article as I am somewhat sceptical about evolutionary psychology. I claim no great knowledge or expertise in the area, but (and perhaps this is the fault of the media) I do get the impression that a lot of the time a past we can only make educated guesses about is being used to explain current phenomena.

A notorious example was the assertion that girls innately like pink – the explanation being the female role in gathering red berries in prehistory.

Maybe it sounds plausible. We all know blue=boys and pink=girls right?

The problem is that it’s nonsense. It rests on the idea that there’s a biologically hardwired affinity between people with two X chromosomes and pink, while blue is more manly. Yet go back less than a hundred years and the reverse was assumed:

“There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

Ladies Home Journal 1918

“If you like the color note on the little one’s garments, use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention.”

Sunday Sentinel 1914

(Source: Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column)

The gender/colour idea is culturally determined.

And this seems to be a problem with the discipline as a whole. I’m not denying a historical, biological impact on our psyche; it just seems that there’s a desire to see this as trumping our current culture, economy and society, along with some bold claims that lack hard evidence.

Looking at the essay in question there is an assertion on an evolutionary basis for altruism, but really, this is just a guess, and we shouldn’t base public policy on guesses around prehistoric human activities that if true may have an impact on current behaviour that we can’t really judge. At the very least we’d need to look at more than one opinion on the roots of altruism (which is an interesting topic, even if I can’t see how short of time travel we can ever reach a conclusive answer).

However we don’t really need to worry about that as much of the article seems more about promoting a particular ideological agenda than anything else:

First, policy needs to acknowledge that in an efficient market economy, most of the power that individuals have to ‘do good’ depends on them acting morally as workers, consumers, and investors – not on the more conspicuous virtue‐displays of charity and volunteering.

Many social and environmental problems that charities try to resolve were exacerbated by government over‐regulation, subsidies, quotas, tariffs, monopolies, or failures to enforce property rights.

This of course has nothing to do with psychology or evolution, it’s just standard right-wing economics. You could also argue that many social and environmental problems that charities try to resolve were exacerbated – or perhaps caused – by market driven policies. Economic inequality and climate change being obvious examples.

It does seem to confirm my suspicions that many evolutionary psychologists seem to be seeking to justify the status quo by appeals to evolutionary causes.
If the author read this no doubt he would assume that I’m writing from a pro-big government, state socialist point of view. I’m not, I support neither the free market nor the state, though I must admit to wanting to keep the safety nets of the welfare state and similar reforms that staved off the worst aspects of an unequal society.

It’s been bad enough trying to fight compulsory or remunerated activities being defined as volunteering, try this for size:

Yet within the market economy, there is plenty of scope for moral virtues to improve human welfare ever further. Any workers doing their job with more skill, attentiveness, and integrity than strictly required by their employment contract are already ‘volunteering’ that extra labor for the common good – and these are pro‐social work values worth celebrating.

While there may be a case here – a pleasant chat with a person on a till can give a feeling of goodwill – it’s massively overstated. A worker putting in extra effort is more likely to be filling the coffers of their employer without any remuneration than anything else. God forbid anyone in a precarious low paid job just does what they’ve been paid to do. The inhuman monsters.


Another paper that did make me smile was the title of a paper by Stephen Howard, CEO, Business in the Community:

Great companies support communities through difficult times

Cynics might argue that they could start by paying their taxes…

A new start

Looking back I think it’s fair to say that I haven’t really seen this as a blog, more of an online presence.  However recent developments in the voluntary sector/volunteering world have been causing me great concern. I don’t really have a say in anything, so all that’s left for me is to at least speak out, even if it is to no one in particular.

So I’ll be blogging more regularly on issues related to volunteering and the big society over the coming weeks and months. I think the posts are likely to be opinionated, forceful, even angry at times, but won’t apologise for this – I think we need a bit more passion in the debate over the future of volunteering and the voluntary sector.

I should be clear that my criticisms of the big society are not party political. I had strong criticisms of many volunteering related proposals under the Labour government (for most of this time I was employed by Volunteering England, so had to temper my views in public), and indeed I do not support any political party, major or minor.