Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Big Society Day

Yesterday certainly put "Big Society" centre stage! A good speech from David Cameron; there is no doubting his passion for this agenda. But as often happens with Governments there can be a gap between rhetoric and reality. Whilst I am clear that DC does not see this agenda as a cover for cuts, nor as a withdrawal of the State, this big idea is to be implemented against a background of the biggest cut back of public spending since the war. That means inevitably third sector organisations will find cuts in grants and support. Indeed they already are, as NCVO showed over the weekend, and as short-sighted Councils like Croydon make savage cuts to the sector.

So how will it work?

There are a number of conditions for success of this agenda.

# it requires a strong, well organised, properly capitalised and professional third sector. The Government has to ensure our sector's capacity and infrastructure is strengthened. They must accept that more volunteering will cost charities more to do it professionally.

This will not happen because they have recruited a band of community organisers. It is a sad fact that all Governments like new initiatives when often they would be better served by using existing infrastructure and mobilising the Sector's Leaders. This has yet to happen. This agenda will only be achieved using the well established and successful charities and social enterprises, not just by a band of social activists and unpaid community organisers.

# capitalisation.
The sector has weak, poor and ineffective access to capital. The private sector will grow as new opportunities for service delivery emerge. They do that through capital acquisition. The innovative work of the Social Investment Business shows the potential. So the announcement of the Big Society Bank is hugely welcome. Congratulations to Nick Hurd MP and Francis Maude MP for getting the commitment to all the dormant assets being used for the Bank (in contrast the the pathetic old Labour cop out of sharing it around and only giving £75m to a Bank).

But some of the media coverage seemed to imply all the Big Society ideas were to be funded by the Bank. They are not. Let's be clear on scale. The FT reported yesterday that initially only between £60-100m will be available. The banks have signally failed to co-operate. The British Bankers Association has been obstructive of progress. They say only £400m is available overall (they are probably covering up the true amount of course).

Contrast this amount with the evidence on demand. When Futurebuilders was closed applications for loans were running at £90m a month. That's a cool £1.8 billion a year! So £400m is not going to meet existing demand, let alone new growth. And on top of that the Government took the decision to cut funding to SIB by siphoning off our loan interest repayments (which we could have used for new loans) to support a new grant scheme.

So more will be needed; in particular from commercial sources ; the new Bank and organisations like the SIB will need to persuade the banks to promote social investment. Top marks to Lord Freud for his initiative in going to the City to make the case for more loans to the third sector. This needs a big push.

And of course there are fantastic new ideas like social impact bonds and a Social Stock Exchange. This is an exciting area for growth an expansion.

# major public service reform: handing power to our sector

I have no doubt of the commitment of the new Government to using our sector to deliver more services. DC is quite clear he wants this to happen and ACEVO are in detailed discussions across Departments on the specifics of reform and how we expand.

We have argued strongly that often sector service delivery is more cost effective and closer to citizens and communities. What we need to see is that in all the cuts decisions being made in Councils, Quangos and Government Departments they look to better ways to deliver, not top slicing or protecting the bureaucracy at the expense of what they see as "easy" cuts, i.e. the third sector.

This is perhaps the best thought through part of the BS agenda. We support this strongly. We will work hard to implement it. But clearly it must be about better services and not cuts, or service on the cheap. But then it is part of our task in the sector to see that does not happen and so we ACEVO's role is to work with Government Departments on a good programme of roll out.
All in all a hectic day. Started off with a call from a national paper at 8.40 and ending with an interview on BBC Live News at 7.30. And in between times, meetings, lunch with the great new Chair of the British Council, Vernon Ellis, and supervision with my own Chair. And in all this I had to pen an analysis article for The Times. It was good (he says modestly). Read it here.

And finally , in a great piece of timing we had our joint launch with the CBI of a new report "Win- Win" on third sector-private sector partnerships. It's a good report which highlights a range of Case studies of organisations that have commercial partnerships and draws conclusions from them. It is well worth reading. Click here.

As more opportunities for public service delivery open up the scope for partnerships with private contractors also opens up. Turning Point and Catch 22 's alliance with SERCO to run prisons is a brilliant example. But there are many more. We will need to develop more partnership working. It is just one of the ways we can , as a sector, take advantage of the new opportunities that Big Society opens up.

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