Big challenges, but let’s not get bogged down in ‘Big Society’

This is a revised version of a guest post I wrote for the AskCharity blog.

Earlier in the month, Peter Gilheany suggested that charities embracing the new Coalition buzz-term “Big Society” do so with care. I can only agree, and hope early-adopters and champions of the term take heed. While its intention is to sound cosy and inclusive, Big Society doesn’t in my view really change much of what charities are doing right now, or how they navigate access to funds, resources and volunteers. Big Society is aimed squarely at local people and groups, encouraging them to pick up the threads where the State’s woolly pullover has frayed and snapped off. And nothing wrong with that – it’s been happening, and will happen, forever. But with my cynical hat on (which I admit I wear on more than one day a week) it will also mean a greater reliance on the public conscience and purse, twinned with less statutory funding and social business investment. Many in the sector lament the very recent loss of Futurebuilders, for example; and guests on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme last week were hazy on investment being diverted from existing resources and handed to local people to build their own ‘independent schools’. Once it gets too ‘Do it Yourself’, the hand tugging on the sleeve of local people’s goodwill, imploring them to donate their time and money, becomes the brave new concept Big Society – and thousands of the UK’s charities in business-as-usual mode.

Andy Westwood, Chair of the OECD’s LEED Forum on Social Innovation, argues that in order to have a Big Society, you need a plentiful supply of ’social capital’ (roughly: the collective will of people in a community to get stuck in and change things for the better. If ‘cultural capital’ makes you cool and socially accepted, ‘social capital’ is the will that makes our communities less dysfunctional). So the third sector – or “civil society” as it’s now being referred to (although I note that this again isn’t a new term. Hat-tip to reader Iris Barner) – must work very hard to harness social capital in our communities wherever we see it.

Westwood suggests help to build social capital comes from unlikely places. For instance, he argues that large Tesco regeneration stores and locally franchised fast food outlets like McDonalds anchor wealth and build communities in the same way that the pits and factories once did. So too are workplace darts and football teams – and even glee clubs – now places where a sense of community is being fostered.

So where does this take our sector? As I suggested three paragraphs ago, I think we’re in business-as-usual mode – with an arguably bigger battle to win the support of individual-givers, the corporate sector’s CSR programmes, and shrunken statutory funding. David Snell cites UnLtd’s Cliff Prior’s assertions that the “[Big Society] losers will be all the organisations, charities and businesses in the middle…currently reliant upon funding to deliver their work. [Prior asserts that] anyone who is supported by any form of govt. funding is in some trouble; which doesn’t mean that there will be no money; it’s just that there will be much less”. And we perhaps also face heightened competition to deliver local public services over profit-making bodies. Outgoing Director of think tank Demos, Richard Reeves, asserts that the third sector will have to “prove their social impact” in order to survive this Coalitions spending cuts. Which is why charities like Whizz-Kidz are trying to deliver more in partnership with local authorities to support more local people; and sharing resources.

And then there is the internet-powered Big Society – which optimists in the spirit of Shirky suggest could “power the reformation of politics […] and create entirely new social classes and professions”. Now, I am somewhat of a disciple of the likes of Mr Shirky but I probably lean towards Anna Coote’s more cautious analysis [opens in PDF] – in so far as there needs to be a fair and sustainable social justice framework where those currently marginalised (with likely no access to the internet or the skills or literacy of technology) can participate fully in their local communities, and the wider adoption of co-production.

If you hadn’t guessed, I’m not big into Big Society if it means my sector being flattered and wooed to deliver more with less. But, if we take off the rose-tinted spectacles, and leave the slogans and official briefings at the door, the third sector has some tough yet exciting opportunities ahead. As Joe Saxton suggests, some of these decisions may result in mergers and more cross-charity partnership working. This could reduce duplication of effort, and I’m all for communication as opposed to territoriality. We also need to tap into the social glue or capital in all communities and not just chase after the same depleting golden pots of money. And we  need to harness the technology that helps to democratise and crowdsource local knowledge and resources; in the very spirit of co-production.

Our sector faces the same challenges that Government and the Labour opposition has in terms of uniting communities, and we can do it; but for now I think the real slogan in our minds needs to be Big Challenge, and not get too bogged down in Big Society.

7 thoughts on “Big challenges, but let’s not get bogged down in ‘Big Society’

  1. A well thought out blog post which mirrors my own fears around the obsession with ‘big society’. I don’t want anyone to think the third sector is going to ‘fix’ so-called broken Britain on the cheap. However I’m all for using these tough economic times as the catalyst for pioneering new models of partnership working and technology that helps build and strengthen social capital.

  2. I guess my worry is that Big Society talk is a very new term and as a result is (at the moment) many things to many people. There is a danger that it becomes the headline banner for a growing number of sub-agendas for reforming the third sector. For example, the move to linking funding to demonstrable financial efficiency, the dilution of the role of the state to foster social action, the move away from the gift economy to a harder exchange-based model, etc. My hope is that the ‘Big Discussion’ (we’ve already had a Big Conversation) can tease out the sub-agendas and properly debate them.

  3. Thanks for your comments, all – glad others share some of my thoughts and concerns. Daniel, nice to meet you – thanks for letting me borrow some of your text. I like to include a broad range of voices. Plurality; how very Big Society. 😉

  4. Nice post. I think the Big Society needs critical friends and this raises important issues.

    I think Big Society can be a useful way of thinking about a genuine co-production of civic engagement. But to do that it needs to connect with those who are most on the margins – those who are outside the labour market. If it can do that, we may be onto something.

    I posted some thoughts on that here.

  5. nicely put Rob.

    can’t help but think that if the potential of the Big Society concept is to be harnessed in the way you so attractively describe, it’s in the consciousness of politicians that it really has to take root rather than within the VCS. it’s our thing after all – i like to call the big society, possibly with a little too much smugness for my own good, ‘core business’.

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