Volunteering and the Big Society
In 2009, just before becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron stated that, “Our [Conservative] alternative to big government is the big society...we need to use the state to remake society”. Furthermore he identified three key ways in which his government intended to move power from the central state level to the local community level – those ways being decentralisation, transparency and accountability.
- Decentralisation is intended to operate at the lowest level: where possible, power is meant to devolve down to the individual within a local community. Where that isn’t possible, it will be given to ‘neighbourhoods’ and if that is not practical, then ‘lowest possible tier of government’ will receive the power.
- Transparency will be driven initially by publishing full details of central and local government spending – this information should give charities, community groups and small (local) businesses to see opportunities for them to provide the same services as government cheaper, better or more straightforwardly.
- Accountability is the least developed of the three key features, with Cameron saying that. “… people and organisations acting for the state [need] to be directly accountable to the people they are supposed to serve” but with no stated mechanism for allowing accountability to operate as an arbiter of service provision.
The idea has received a cautious welcome from the bodies that represent voluntary groups, with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) stating that, “Civil society is where people come together to make a positive difference to their lives and the lives of others... It is where me becomes we.” But it adds that part of the role of a voluntary society is to be radical, “by holding government to account and by creating space for conversations about how the world is and how it could be”- an agenda for transformative and challenging voluntary action that doesn’t appear anywhere in the parliamentary note on “Big Society” nor in the manifesto pledges of the Conservative Party.
Big Society Shaken By RiotsThere has been a range of media commentary on the recent rioting in British cities, linking it more or less explicitly to the Big Society concept. While The Telegraph pointed out that the Conservative response to social media use by the rioters was restrictive and the opposite of the ‘Big Society’ ideal, The Guardian highlighted, “Big Society charities, losing money and lacking accountability.”
Little positive spin has yet been put on the relationship between Big Society and urban unrest and it seems likely that intense debates at Prime Minister’s Question time will continue to explore the role of both the previous and the current government in creating the social conditions that resulted in riots. Many community activists have raised concerns about the way that terms like “feral underclass” have been used by Conservative politicians to describe the rioters, with the Acting Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police, Tim Godwin, commenting that this term was not one he would have chosen to use himself and that the fear of crime that drove young people to join the gangs that took part in looting, “is a great challenge to us as a city”.
How Does The Big Society Help VolunteersIn 2009, Cameron highlighted, “… the significant percentage of the population who have no record of getting involved... we want to build up strong local institutions which are tangible … [a]National Citizens' Service will bring together sixteen year olds...to serve their community.” This is just one approach to creating voluntary opportunities that also help society. Other approaches included in manifesto pledges are:
Social entrepreneurs [with] “… capacity to run successful social programmes in communities with the greatest needs... [and] a track record of success.” This category is to be funded directly from current state budgets to deliver public services.
Community activists, who will play informal roles in their communities such as running parents’ groups and organising meetings with neighbourhood police.
What Is The Big Society Bank?Despite claims that some of the functions of the bank would be operating by April 2011 (using money from dormant accounts to fund projects should have begun in late summer 2011), by July 2011 the rate of progress was still at the late planning stage with advisory boards being created to ensure that the claim that “big society bank [would take] £200 million from Britain's banks to put into the voluntary sector” could actually begin to happen.
The bank’s mission is to improve “the ability of the social sector to deal with social issues … by supporting the development of a social investment market which is more effective in attracting capital to achieve social impacts.”
It will do this by using funds from dormant bank and building society accounts to fund the National Citizens' Service, provide seed capital to new social entrepreneurs and to support the grassroots work of community activists.