Apathy and cynicism surround the Big Society concept. But, despite the attacks, there are people keen to volunteer in the community. Local government needs to come to the rescue
The ‘Big Society’ has now been rebranded, repackaged and relaunched more times than David Cameron would probably care to dwell on. People from across the political spectrum are urging him not to bother doing so again. This week, the New Local Government Network added its voice to that growing chorus, not for political reasons, but for the simple fact that the big society is not David Cameron’s to impose.
Debates rage about what the big society actually is. We are told that it is not “Big Government” and we can safely assume that communities are going to need to do much of the legwork. In that case, surely it’s time that the Prime Minister and his colleagues stop ignoring their own advice. The rebranding is futile and unnecessary; the local level is where the battle for the big society is won or lost.
Our research launched today paints a mixed picture for the agenda. New polling demonstrates that there are significant numbers of people willing to get out into the community and volunteer, and to do quite a surprising range of activities as well. For example, respondents claimed to be more willing to help rehabilitate youth offenders than to volunteer in a local hospital.
Apathy to the big society agenda might be widespread, but indifference towards helping out within the community can’t be assumed. Willingness – where it exists – should be located and harnessed by local government.
Having said that, we can’t rely simply on traditional conceptions of volunteering to save services. Getting energetic members of the community to give up a few hours in a local library might help stave off closure, but far better is to move away from existing service models and look at how we can improve without simply propping up defunct models with labour taken from within the community.
Harrow is looking at how to engage its citizens as something more than just an extra pair of hands with its ‘Let’s Talk’ consultation to bridge the knowledge and communication gap between service design within councils and the public; the ‘Southwark Circle’ called on the consultancy of 250 of its own elderly residents to design a system to help give advice on local services and make use of the capacity that residents have to help each other out in tasks such as gardening and DIY.
These examples demonstrate thinking that goes way beyond simply seeing residents as passive recipients of services or even as volunteers. Schemes such as these prove that local residents can be relied on as co-designers and co-deliverers. The specifics differ between localities but the common theme of successful schemes is that of local government as a stimulator and developer of latent social capital.
By heat mapping big society resources across the country, the clearest picture we get of the big society is that it’s pretty unclear. Vastly different levels of deprivation across communities are matched by vastly different levels of resources such as volunteering and cohesion needed to take on big society-esque responsibilities. Poorer areas are not necessarily the least well endowed with such capacity, and some wealthy areas appear quite poor in some aspects of social wealth.
So what does this mean for the big society?
Government needs to be more attentive to local realities, and willing to adjust policies and resource allocation based on these differing conditions. To get through these difficult times, the onus is very much on local government to use its knowledge and position as a community hub to develop the resources necessary to support residents.
The big society will not be launched one day and implemented the next; it will take time, imagination and bold leadership to realise.
Tom Symons is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network