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RSA Fellow Richard Chambers argues that the voluntary sector’s role in defining and delivering the Big Society is vital but cannot be done on the cheap.

It would appear from recent events that there is such a thing as ‘society’ after all. The return of this much-loved friend is all the more remarkable because it is central to the thinking of a political party that condemned the very concept, so memorably, three decades ago.

Political analysts tend to agree that the idea of the 'Big Society' was not a vote-winner for the Conservative Party in the 2010 general election, because no-one could give a clear definition of what the term meant. However, recent pronouncements show that the government considers this idea to be absolutely crucial to the future of the nation.

Last year, David Cameron's take on the Big Society was a call for social cohesion: ‘We will do this by making government more transparent and accountable and by breaking open public services to new providers, unleashing the forces of innovation. This followed his repeated assertion that: ‘We must use the state to remake society.’

Cameron spoke often in terms of harnessing volunteer power to mend 'broken Britain'. This was to be done, it seemed, through increasing the funding for charities, and encouraging citizens to play a greater part in how their communities were run.

Prior to the General Election, he also spoke about piloting a National Citizen Service to end the "pointless waste of potential" among teenagers. Speculation in the voluntary sector surrounded the possibility of a Conservative government calling upon expert organisations, such as Volunteering England and CSV, to help join the existing dots and avoid reinventing the volunteer wheel. But, regardless of the methods by which this volunteer potential was to be unlocked, the Big Society seemed initially to be about the power of the citizen to shape a new Britain.

A case can now be made that the notion of a Big Society changed significantly on 7 June 2010. On that date, we were told by the newly elected Prime Minister that a ‘once in a generation’ examination of government was on the way, and that the public would be consulted as to the way forward. However, we were also given our gravest warning yet that the economic situation was much worse than the previous government had let on.

Within three weeks of the coalition gaining power, Dame Elisabeth Hoodless marked her retirement as long-standing executive of CSV by telling the Guardian: "The impact of volunteering depends on the quality of opportunities. If you invite people to pick up litter, some will respond, but a great many more will come forward to protect children or tutor young offenders."

Whilst one suspects that Cameron was always hoping for more than just an increase in litter patrols, the point had been made that using volunteers as cheap labour for unpalatable tasks carries the seeds of its own destruction.

The long-held suspicion remains that politicians' overtures to the voluntary sector are based upon the assumption that they can deliver services at a lower cost than public sector bodies. This suspicion has deepened amongst charities since this austerity government announced its first budget. After the election the Big Society may require citizens not to 'remake' Britain so much as sacrifice their standards of living to save the existing one.

Whatever the Big Society becomes, it will grow very slowly. Harnessing community spirit, 'free time' and volunteer power was always going to require large-scale funding, both to encourage people that the Big Society will genuinely improve their lives, and to pay for resulting projects such as a National Citizen Service.

In the absence of funding with which it could shore up the state, the government must now turn to NGOs who have already researched, experimented and, in part, solved some of society's problems and draw them into the process of creating the Big Society.

The RSA exists to inspire new ways of thinking, and has a track-record of positive outcomes in the areas of community cohesion, education and sustainability. Along with many, many other organisations it has kept the spirit for a 'Big Society' alive and strong for decades.

If the government embraces that spirit by helping to provide "quality opportunities" for volunteers and supporting those opportunities with long-term funding, the Big Society may come to define us as a nation. However, if NGOs are used purely as cheap, politically expedient alternatives to the public sector, then it is likely that there will be "no such thing" as the Big Society.

Richard Chambers is an RSA Fellow and works for the Church Army.


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