The Voluntary Sector – A Lifeline For The Big Society?

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The Big Society model is flawed – but it presents unexpected opportunities for voluntary organisations in the coming years.


Many voluntary sector organisations have reacted to the prime minister’s proposals for The Big Society with scepticism. To many, the fact that it is being championed concurrently with radical austerity measures suggests that The Big Society is just a cynical ploy to get communities to pick up the pieces after public and voluntary sector services have been decimated.

Voluntary and community groups are right to be concerned about the spending review: they will bear a huge brunt of the cuts to public spending. Those agencies that survive the funding cuts will be most exposed to the harsh impact that the service cuts have on their clients. They will be under immense pressure to find some means of providing support to more service users on a far smaller budget than before.

That said, I don’t think that The Big Society is just a cynical ploy to lumber communities with the state’s social burden. I believe that The Big Society genuinely wants to champion civil society, and that it will be effective for mobilising some social action – but only within a limited range of possibilities.

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Big Opportunities

At its heart The Big Society seems to be a self-help movement. It wants to remove obstructive local bureaucracy so as to empower local people to take over failing services. It wants to give control back to communities so they can help themselves.

This could work well for people with strong leadership and social skills, with spare time to allocate, and with the vested interest to unite and tackle a particularly urgent problem that affects them personally. The example that is regularly put forward is of parents whose children are at a failing school taking over the running of the service. Parents would have an immediate vested interest in rallying together to sort out the crisis.

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Big Limits

But there are limitations to the Big Society model. My clients in the education sector will tell you that it takes years to transform a failing school. It is hard to imagine many parents’ groups sustaining intensive input into a school’s development whilst also holding down their other career commitments.

What is under-played is the fact that any take-over (such as parents taking over the running of a school) is a bloody and messy affair with blame and counter-blame, withholding of essential operational data, and complex legal wrangles. Today’s rescuing heroes quickly become demonised as tomorrow’s villains as soon as anything goes wrong. Groups who take over the running of public services will require a hugely sophisticated understanding of conflict resolution to be able to succeed.

So TBS might actually have the unintended consequence of helping citizens to appreciate quite how complex and thankless a job it is to manage public services. People might well rescue a failing service and then discover what a nightmare they have taken on. The are likely to want to parcel it up quickly and to hand it over to another managing body with the sustainable infrastructure to govern it effectively. This is where entrepreneurial voluntary organisations could come in.

And imagine how The Big Society movement would handle a different scenario : a neighbourhood experiencing major problems with chaotic drug use. The community might come together to reduce the impact of the problem via projects for public safety, removing used syringes quickly, and making it difficult for dealers to operate locally. Brilliant if the neighbourhood is given the resources to make this happen – but their intervention won’t tackle the complex social causes of illicit drug use, it just moves the problem on to a less resilient community.

It will take specialist voluntary groups to help local communities to understand that their longer term interests are best served by adopting more integrated solutions that include harm minimisation, rehabilitation, and anti-poverty programmes.

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Identifying The Shortfall

At some point in the next two years or more the successes and limitations of The Big Society will become more apparent. The impact of the spending review will be known, the chaos of public sector restructuring will be bedding down, gaps in statutory provision will be more visible, and the “blind spots” of GP commissioning will show. The government can’t allow The Big Society project to fail, so at this stage it will be pressed to do something about the shortcomings. It will have to consider:

  • Strategic development, prioritising of resources, and evidence-based approaches to service delivery.
  • Bridging the planning gap between central government and local areas (given that regional bodies are being abolished).
  • Reconciling the competing needs of different communities in local areas.
  • Service provision for constituencies that aren’t well served by the Big Society model, such as stigmatised user groups (like injecting drug users, ex-offenders) or  user groups where co-production is more complex (people with enduring mental illness or learning disabilities).
  • Capacity building, engagement with marginalised communities, and redressing social inequalities.

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The Voluntary Sector Could Offer Solutions

Much of this work could be picked up by voluntary and community organisations if they position themselves well and offer low cost solutions. The public sector won’t be able to deliver these solutions, as it will have to concentrate on high-level strategic planning, and will no longer have the capacity for new service delivery. The private sector will have to concentrate on large-scale capital-funded contracts – it won’t be able to compete against the voluntary sector on price and generally lacks the right ethos for community interventions.

So there will be new opportunities for voluntary organisations in the years ahead – that’s if they can survive the current financial hardships and align themselves with Big Society thinking. The challenge will be to scale back now to ride out the cuts, whilst still retaining the capacity to expand in the future when new opportunities present themselves. In the meanwhile voluntary agencies need to do some intensive work to identify what unique contribution they could make to turning The Big Society into a viable project.

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