Sunday 13 February 2011

Big Society Mark 2

Sunday is full English breakfast day,but I had only just got the sausages on , whilst listening to the morning service from the charming Worcester College , Oxford when the phone goes. BBC wanting me for the news, so it was straight down to Millbank where I did a slot for the BBC , then Sky and then a studio session for Sky with Phillip Blond and the Archbishop of Southwark ( RC).

David Cameron ,writing in the Observer , has acknowledged that the cuts have damaged the message of Big Society and is emphasising the role of public service reform and the delivery of services by the third sector. This is welcome. Many of us in the sector have felt the messaging on Big Society has been confusing and the lack of effective narrative by Government has clearly damaged the project. The waffle and , frankly wacky stuff about volunteering ( the latest from the big society network talks of a thousand acts of kindness and making volunteering delightful ) has obscured what should have been central. A shift in power to our sector and to citizens and communities. There is a stronger message. And one we want to support.

In fact the package of changes to procurement announced by DC on Friday,the forthcoming White Paper on service reform and the establishment of the Big Society Bank with more money , tied up with the changes in local government ( rights to challenge and right to buy)health,education,rehabilitation and work will mark , over time, a major change in scope and power for the sector and our beneficiaries.

What we now need is for Government to work with our sector in ensuring plans are sound. We cannot have a merry band of community organisers parachuted into communities unless they are tied into the established community sector. There is somewhat of an irony in having a top down centrally driven initiative for community organisation! The community sector needs to be involved in the planning. And the idea must be based in the growing network of community hubs , not something apart from that. And of course we cannot have a position where existing community development is being cut only to see new funding for a central initiative. If there is to be a community organiser qualification then that has to be consistent with the work of the third sector skills body and based on the century of experience of community development in our sector. There is always a danger that governments think they have discovered something new when it's been around for ages and just needs more support.

Sector Leaders need to be at the table and in the driving seat so we can make this happen. There are definite signs that at last we are being seen as the enablers rather than the usual suspects.

The announcements tomorrow on the Big Society Bank promise to be good I hear there wil be a good founding chair for the bank as it starts up. I have long argued the need for a bank And we will have to beware those that see this as just another grant making organisation. This is about loans. Access to capital for our sector. This above all could be the initiative that is revolutionary. We know from the work of Futurebuilders that there is appetite and demand for loans. The new Bank can be a trend setter , showing the High Street Banks that lending to third sector bodies can be profitable and is a new untapped Market as service delivery opportunities open up.

But there remains one problem. Council ( and to a lesser extent health) cuts. I think the time has come for councils to be directed not to make unproportionate cuts. I suggest a Big Rule to support Big Society. It has 2parts;

1. No cuts to sector organisations are bigger than for direct council services and,

2. Where cuts are made there is a moratorium of 6 months whilst talks are held with the sector organisations to give them a chance to propose how they could reshape services.

Unless we can see an end in sight for cuts , and things look to be getting worse not better , then it will be difficult to win over our sector. And we are crucial to the achievement of a bigger society. In the early days of the project it was clear that those proposing the idea thought they could do it without us. They thought we were the old guard. The usual suspects. Tainted by years of Labour so there was a feeling we needed to be sidelined. Indeed there were a number of disgraceful attacks on big charities. Remember the notorious Wei speech on the " big charity mindset " !

But I detect that is over. Whilst there are no new announcements or ,as yet any new money , ( though who knows what may come in the budget) I see a change of tone and direction which emphasises public service reform and a big role for the third sector in delivering that. Good. This is something we can support strongly and work on with Government.

And now it's time for Choral Evensong from Gloucester Cathedral on Radio 3 ,always a highlight of Sunday afternoon and late Mass. It's an early start tomorrow as I have to do radio interviews and then get to the PM speech on how he is recasting the message.

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