Monday, 7 February 2011

BBC on the Big Society

It amused me to come across this article on the BBC website as it makes some very similar points on the big society to those appearing on the pages of this very blog and comments I have made elsewhere!

The general theme of the piece is that whilst Government is encouraging the idea that the voluntary sector should play an increasingly prominent role in delivering services Local Government budget cuts are actually undermining the capacity of the sector to be able to deliver.

Especially interesting is the following passage dealing with the Governments response to these points:

Asked about the criticism that there was no strategic plan, Cabinet Office mnister Francis Maude told the BBC: "We're not going to dictate from the centre what every local authority should do. They must be accountable to their local communities."

He said three quarters of voluntary organisations got no state funding so would not be affected by council cuts.

Firstly this seems like a clear case of buck passing. Having worked for a local authourity in the past it was clear to me that Local Authorities have very little room for maneuvre. Most of what they do is prescribed by statute or dictated by central-governemt. With barely enough funding to do what is required of them Local Councils main concern is simply one of survival; a case of figuring how to put food on the plate, not making an informed choice between steak and chips or cod and chips. In other words local authourities whatever their persuasion or outlook will seek to cut soft targets; libraries and funding for local voluntary organisations.

The second point I really must take issue with is the figure quoted that 3/4 of voluntary organisations receive no state funding. This may be true, but it does not account for the size of voluntary organisations which vary enourmously from a one room operation consisting of a handful of people, to a national organisation such as Shelter, or a multinational like Greenpeace. Organisations also do differnt activities in different policy areas; not all directly provide services, some provide office support to other organisations, some engage in advocacy and others may act as umbrella groups. So it is not really possible to compare organisations on an individual basis. It may well be more likely that it is the organisations most involved with service provision that are in receipt of state funding.


  1. You make some interesting points, especially within the final paragraph, and I would like to suggest further linked issues from my perspective. As a disabled civil rights activist I would want to make a distinction between the ideologies of many vol. orgs. in the 3rd Sector and traditional charities. Hence our demand: "Rights not Charity" - the ethos of charity via the Commission is disempowering not empowering. I agree about funding and service provision, however, who determines service level agreements - the Piper?

    BS is seen by some to challenge Thatcher's "no society" interview, but I'd say it's making the same argument: self-reliance not State dependency. For many in our society self-reliance isn't an option which is why BS is bad news for older and disabled people.

  2. It's interesting that you raise those points as strangely enough my last piece of work for university was on the topic of 'mission drift' in the vol. sector and the whole idea that the requirements of funders (largely Local Authorities) has led to organisations having to choose between their financial health and their founding principles. One of the arguements made by Stephen Bubb (I think I mention this in my previous post), which I think is a convincing one, is that though there have been problems with 'contract culture' there has been a substantial pay off in terms of standards and capacity.

    Bubb also argues that the seat at the table such relationships provide is more beneficial for organisations than being fully independent, but outsiders. I think the Independent Living Movement is a good example of where a closer relationships with state organisations has led to real changes to policy and has not particularly affected organisations advocacy roles.

    My concern (or rather one of my concerns!) with the big society is that, with current cuts in local government funding, it will mean reversing the gains Bubb points to; replacing what are in the main, good, well organised services provided by the voluntary sector, but funded by the state with something altogether a bit more chaotic.

    I don't think it's a case of being cynical, but the voluntary sector we have today is a product largely of state funding particularly in the Blair years. It is not because we as a society have become more alturistic. I just don't see the 'big society', even with 5000 community workers, drumming up enough support to plug the gaps which will be left by the withdrawl of state funding. In fact I even wonder how many existing community workers face redundancy, or how many positions will be left vacant as local authourities cut their budgets.

    I think that it's a really interesting point that the 'big society' is the same in essence as Thatcher's 'no society' philosophy. I agree that both are all about ending reliance on the state. For my part I think policies like individual budgets have this as a subtext. The difference between them I feel is that the big society is much more of a tactical withdrawl. My concern with all these policies is that there is a huge potential for a whole set of inequalities. Even if the 'big society' is a success and we see innovative, client centered services popping up, the contraversies would then be around postcode lotteries and the rationing used by community organisations to protect services overwhelmed by demand.... perhaps this may be my next post, what if the big society were a success...