Monday, September 20, 2010

From Liverpool

At Lib Dem conference where I am courtesy of Charities Aid Foundation and the Charities Commission, whose respective Question Time events I took part in yesterday and today.

The big talking point is the Big Society. What is it? How is it going to take shape? What are the implications for charities large and small. The sector seems to split into three camps. One is deeply cynical, adopting a Unite-like attitude. `What if no-one shows up to the Big Society?' scoffed a TUC delegate, unaware, it seems, of his own movement's drive for a more associcative and communitarian society
For this lot, it's all about mocking the idea that everything can be done with volunteers. Then they switch off.

The middle group, me included, feel energised and optimistic but a bit disenchanted with the rather simplistic and un-inclusive approach of the administration to date. This seems to paint the charity establishment as a fat, left-leaning, self-regarding force of conservatism which mustn't be allowed into the tent. Naive stuff, if you want this agenda to fly.

The third group - and there aren't many of them - are the direct beneficiaries - the chosen few of the Big Society who are being directly sponsored to make it all happen. These are often new arrivals, refreshing new faces which, quite appropriately, have taken new angles on old problems, giving the existing charity sector major food for thought.

Four months into the administration, the Big Society has, perhaps to everyone's surprise, become a defining theme. Cameron himself has nailed his own reputation to its success. The difference between this and a Labour Mega-theme is that there is no master-plan. Indeed, they appear to have gone the other way and we have No Plan.

The truth is that they could have done with saying more. Not much more, but at least a laying out of idea - an opener for discussion. We are at a perfect moment for a national conversation on the issue - but every conversation needs an opener, every party needs an animating spirit.

So too do we need a clear, visible champion for this who can communicate comfortably and who is willing to `put out' in ways which centre the conversation, give it traction and reality. As it is, we're all floundering. Which is a shame because people are willing, at this early stage in the Coalition, to engage and help. Even the traditional charities.

So let's make the Big Society a Big Tent and we will soon be able to give this young idea its underpinning.


Andy Brady said...

I'd agree with that 3 way split. But you can't blame the naysayers when there's nothing to say yes to, really. The ideas, and the germs of policy that have been released, are potentially very exciting - rights of communities to get public sector assets which are currently being flogged off to private hands for example - but there needs to be some change management from the government: limit the degree of uncertainty and shorten the period we live through it.

Training people on what Big Society might mean - the big message is tune in to the theories and the discourse, examine where your organisation might fit in, and get ready to perform back flips when required...

David Floyd said...

I'm possibly a curiously blend of all three.

3 - in the sense that quite a bit of stuff I do - both in the day job and in my spare time - fits the Big Society rhetoric.

2 - in the sense I think that there's been some good Big Society ideas, particularly from Respublica and CSJ, and I'm glad that the Tories have moved on from 'no such thing. But also agree that some of Big Society's proponents have been counter-productively dismissive of anyone and (at times it's seemed) everyone in the existing social sectors.

1 - because, while as someone who apparently can't help volunteering for stuff I don't like to seeing volunteering mocked and derided, I do think there's serious problems with the (apparent) notion than volunteering is a replacement for lots of previously publicly funded services.

Rob 'Arris said...

My view is one of enormous caution for 2 reasons:

1. I havent seen anything engaging or even detailed about what 'big society' is - its already become an aerosol word (sprayed around liberally without anybody really knowing what it means). The government need to be clearer about what they really mean and what their objective or mission is.

2. With the development of community involvement, volunteering and localised power comes associated risk and responsibility (risk and responsibility that the government has made clear they do not want their public services to hold any longer (see 'Liberating the NHS', plans for GP commissioning, schools academies and increased efforts in personalisation incl individual budgets).

If i were a cynic, which of course i am not, i would put this issue in the "economic decision" box.

The capacity and attitude to risk of the independent, third sector and small local groups will be strongly tested by what at present is rhetoric only. The final test is whether this is truly a shift to localised involvement and decision making - i havent seen any plans that detail this.

From a "broken society....." to a "big all inclusive society....". A quantum leap of faith. If it was a business would it have legs or be invested in?

My disclaimer as ever is i really havent invested enough time researching this subject and i am probably way of the mark!