Thursday 12 August 2010

"Big society" nationalised!

I receive an interesting email this morning! It comes from the Government's Department for Communities and Local Government and from a civil servant. It tells me that,

"Over the course of the next four months the Big Society Network is planning a 'Town Hall' tour. We will be hosting public meetings to engage with individuals, those active in civil society and social entrepreneurs on all aspects of the Big Society but in particular how the Network can best support individuals to come together in groups at a local level."

Details on this are on a Government website.

Now I have no problem with the Department organising consultations with the sector (indeed they should) but what is odd, and runs the risk of alienating many in the sector, is to appear to try to co- opt "Big Society" as a Government led and managed project. This risks crossing the divide between the sector's independence from Government. It also raises questions about the sector being co-opted for what are clearly party political ends.

Those who run the Big Society Network may be grateful for the use of Government infrastructure to help promote their work, it is after all itself a very small organisation. But they would be well advised to reflect on how this presents their work to the very groups they are trying to attract and stimulate. Many in the sector may conclude, not unreasonably, that the "Big Society Network" is not a part of civil society, nor a genuine third sector organisation, but a front for Government and one of Government's policies.

As I have said on a number of occasions, the Big Society narrative presents some interesting opportunities for our sector. But that narrative must be one led by our sector, the home of Big Society itself. Given the pressures ACEVO members are under in terms of cuts and rising demand, there is a significant risk of alienation from a programme which seems of Government rather than of the sector.

In terms of the agenda for these events, the email goes on to say that it wants to,

"engage with volunteer groups, social enterprises, businesses, charity groups and neighbourhood networks to bring communities together to talk about shared experiences, answer questions, find out who and what is in their neighbourhood, share knowledge, discuss how to inspire others to become interested in being involved in their local community and link community groups together to create the ambitions of their Big Society."

Note there is no reference to "cuts" or our traditional role as advocates and campaigners! Will there be any room for our sector to raise the problems of the drastic spending cuts on local communities? Would anyone attending and pointing out that organising volunteers costs money encouraged? Will there be any chance to say that the real problem is not in engaging volunteers but in the cuts that will slash support for the old and young, the vulnerable and the disabled?

Is this is an attempt by the Department to undermine the legitimate voice of the sector with a patsy organisation they can use as an alternative voice when our sector protests at the damage to civil society by cuts? Perhaps I'm being paranoid! But you do wonder!


Martin Davies said...

No, you aren't being paranoid. Paranoid people only THINK someone is out to get them. :)
Seiously, thanks for your blog. Its a good way for us fundraisers, never mind chief executives, to keep up with what is happening.
One of the first things I do each week is go your blog to see what I've missed. Keep up the good work.

Andrew said...

I agree with Martin. You were seriously misled by Cameron and Clegg over the Future Jobs Fund prior to the election (see your post of 30th April) and I cannot for the life of me see how a two commitments to keep something translates into a short notice scrapping. You could shorten the word 'society' to "con" for that is what the Big Society idea appears to be. More work for no money at all does not appear to be a route to a sustainble future. The private sector won't do it; the public sector can't do it so dump it cheap on those who won't complain. Sorry Dave - we are and we do.

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