It’s all going wrong for the government’s flagship
programme idea. First Liverpool quit as a ‘vanguard community’, then Lord Wei decided he didn’t have enough time to keep providing free advice on how people can do more stuff for free, then one of most respected people in the world of volunteering said that cuts were destroying the concept. And that’s only few indicative clippings from the collage of catastrophe that’s befallen the Big Society agenda over the last couple of weeks.
My social enterprise has no position on government policy agendas beyond an acceptance that once governments have been elected at national, regional and local levels its our duty to engage with their policies in a possibly critical but ultimately constructive way. I’ve been sceptical of the project now known as the Big Society Bank since its original appearance as New Labour’s Social Investment Wholesale Bank. The arrival of the Coalition government didn’t make the idea any worse than it was before.
The problem is that now both political opponents of Big Society and civil society/third sector (once again, delete according to political taste) leaders are seeing the (up to) £300 million available – mostly as loans – from the bank in the context of massive cuts in council budgets. £300 million adds up to less than the £322 million combined savings targets for Birmingham and Manchester this year. So, if the Big Society Bank spent all its money in Birmingham and Manchester (and didn’t ask for any of it back) that might pay for council service provision to remain more or less the same in Birmingham and Manchester (although NHS services would be still be cut and there would be nothing to spend anywhere else).
Whether or not we reckon the Big Society Bank is a good idea, it’s not an answer to the question of how on earth social enterprises and voluntary sector organisations can build the Big Society without any money. The apparent emphasis from some in government on volunteering is a red herring. Political enthusiasm for other people doing volunteering is a cross party affliction. Gordon Brown’s volume-based moral crusade in favour of youth volunteering – which partly involved redefining many leisure activities as ways of helping the community – was just as ridiculous as anything the Coalition government has offered on the subject.
Useful volunteering by people who actually want to do it is a very good thing but, as Social Enterprise London’s Allison Ogden Newton points out, it’s not the answer to the question of how social enterprises (and others) can deliver public services in challenging economic times. And, if you believe the clever research people, the best way for the government to stimulate volunteering is to help people to become better educated and richer.
The Big Society debate is not light on anger, frustration and misunderstanding but a couple of the more frustrating things about the current rhetorical bloodbath are:
(a) Big Society, in the right context, is a good idea that offers a lot to the social enterprise movement and our colleagues in the voluntary sector. That’s partly because the fact that a party previously regarded by many as primarily promoting the interests of individuals is now actively promoting the idea of groups of people getting together to do social good is a positive step. And partly because many of us share Big Society thinkers’ concerns about the sustainability of an ever-expanding, ever more expensive state that often lacks the flexibility to work with people to help them live the lives they want to live.
(b) Big Society could give social enterprise a bad name. It’s likely that few of the hundreds of thousands of public sector workers (and voluntary sector workers) around the country receiving their P45s with exhortations to form a social enterprise and/or build the Big Society ringing in their ears are going to respond with enthusiasm. Big Society (as a brand) is on the rocks because it’s been irretrievably dragged into the cuts debate. There’s a serious danger that social enterprise – as an idea in the public consciousness – could go down with it. Lots of people really like The Big Issue but they don’t like it as much as they like having a job.
Neither the general idea of a smaller, enabling state nor the parallel idea of having lots more sustainable businesses with primarily social aims suddenly become fundamentally worse ideas when the state suddenly stops spending money but they become much harder to deliver without lots of people ending up worse off in the process. The government is unlikely to abandon the Big Society entirely – not least because it’s not clear what they’d replace with – but the test of the success of this week’s relaunch, to be judged this time next year, will be whether or not they’re talking about it quite so often.
For social entrepreneurs, the challenge in the months ahead is to be clearer than ever about what we do and why we’re doing it because the days of cuddly semi-relevance are well and truly over. Whether we like it or not, we face a tougher ongoing fight to continue to exist, coupled with an even greater need to justify our existence.