Today saw the launch of the much-vaunted ‘Big Society’. The Big Society is David Cameron’s Big Idea and “Big Passion”. His vision is for services to be provided on a more localised level – as an antidote to Big Government. So, all in all, this is big. Here are my initial thoughts.
The theory behind Big Society is great – getting people more involved in their communities, everybody using their own skills helping each other to provide the services they want and need, such as the Post Office or transport services – and it is hard to argue against that. It is almost a (whisper it) socialist ideal.
But, like many policies that are great in theory, the practice will be somewhat different.
One of the main tenets of the Big Society is enabling charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations to take over the running of public services.
Already, many social care services are provided by the third sector – such as day centres, mental health recovery programmes and meals on wheels – and have local authority contracts to do this.
Some of these organisations rely on volunteers to ensure they keep running – from helping to serve tea at a day centre to driving a care home minibus on a weekly outing – and it is, in a way, an example of how the Big Society already works. That isn’t the problem.
This is: how much more can the sector take on? Many volunteer organisations find themselves crying out for more people to join them – is this going to change under the new government directive?
While many people like the idea of volunteering, few do it. To use a current marketing buzz-phrase, many people are ‘time poor’ – or to you and me, busy – and feel that they can’t spare the time. Others may not have the skills required. Or, perhaps more obviously, some people won’t be bothered or willing to do it because some people just don’t like the idea of working for nothing.
For me, this is one of the major sticking points of the Big Society; getting enough people to not only buy into its ethos but also to take part in it. When the social care sector often struggles to get good people into the workforce when it offers to pay them, I’m doubt that they’ll get them voluntarily.
There are other aspects I am sceptical about. One of the examples being quoted is the pub in rural Cumbria that is being bought and run by the locals, with 105 of them stumping up £1,500 each to take a stake in the pub. OK, this is a great example of how it can work (hence why it’s being used) but will this happen in a run-down inner-city area, for instance? How many people in a housing estate have that sort of money knocking about?
This can be applied to social care – would enough people get involved to, for example, run a day centre? Especially in rural areas, where there is a smaller pool of potential people to help.
I also have a nagging feeling that this is just a back-door way of making cuts and saving money by giving the running of public services to volunteer organisations, which, by their nature, employ people who aren’t paid for their work – much cheaper than civil servants and council employees. David Cameron has denied this, but then he would, wouldn’t he?
Maybe I’m being over-cynical. There are some great social enterprises out there, and things like hyperlocal websites where local people are getting together and making a difference to their communities. Doubtless this policy will create more of these, which is great, but I doubt it will provide the change in society that David Cameron envisages.