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The Big Society concept is under fire. Harriet Riley argues the concept promises exciting possibilities for volunteer organisations and explores some of its implications for the charity sector.

If the government’s Big Society narrative survives the current onslaught, it could provide opportunities for developing new ways of delivering services, and the promotion of innovative and collaborative working practices. At the practical level, however, there is a great deal of confusion – and a degree of negativity – around the idea in some areas of the voluntary sector, probably reflecting what is being felt in many local authorities.

There seems to be a lack of support and guidance – either from central government, or locally – on what is being asked of these organisations. The RSA’s Jonathan Rowson’s provides a useful analogy for how many at the front line feel: a pressure to try to build some kind of bucolic idyll against a savage landscape of cuts is discomfiting. While reception in the voluntary sector is far from uniform, within some groups it risks being divisive.

The apparent assumption from central government is that existing (and new) volunteer groups can and will smoothly transition into the gaps left by the retrenchment of the state, and that this is appropriate, sustainable and will provide an effective continuity of service. However, this approach shows a lack of understanding of the complexity and diversity of the voluntary sector, and the motivations and abilities of volunteers themselves.

My own corner of the voluntary sector is swirling with rumours of cuts to statutory youth service activities, with charities being asked to step in: this presents an enormous challenge in terms of continuity of scale and quality of service delivery. It is clear there will be a need for training and support of volunteers, both new recruits who will be needed to meet the scale of the challenge, and supporting existing volunteers expanding their work to a broader client base of young people. With central government thinking appearing woolly on this, it is difficult to see where the necessary support would come from. There appears to have been little discussion about how to manage this; training volunteers alongside existing staff could ease the transition for both volunteers and service users, but if this has been suggested, the idea has not reached those on the ground, at least in the areas I am familiar with. Whilst not an ideal solution, this may go some way to countering the loss of skills as highlighted by Hilary Burrage.

There is an absence of clarity on what is being asked – and when – of the voluntary sector, or at least the perception that this is so, among people who feel they may be expected to implement the Big Society plan (whatever that may be). Schedules are important: in the youth service example, it might be practical for volunteers to shadow existing authority-funded youth workers, but at present the time-scales are so unknown that this kind of arrangement may never make the most of the existing skills before they are dispersed.

In discussing the Big Society with volunteers in one of the ‘vanguard’ local authority areas, they feel uncomfortable with the idea of committing other volunteers to something without much greater clarity and support. They are also aware that their organisations – and the local authority – would have to accept that some existing volunteers would have little interest in being involved in the additional ‘Big Society’ activities, which might prevent organisations taking on the roles which it is assumed they will without a major recruitment drive.

Whilst no right-thinking organisation would agree to anything without the majority of its supporters, it serves to highlight the complex nature of some of the organisations involved. Volunteers on the ground are inevitably concerned about people higher up the chain making decisions without consultation. I have a feeling this attitude is probably paralleled in local authorities, who are effectively being told by government to enact programmes without being asked whether it will work in their area. (In itself, this is potentially a significant conflict with the Coalition’s ‘localism’ agenda).

Any transition to the Big Society will require behaviour change on a huge scale. However, the factors behind volunteering behaviour – something at once both personal and social for many people – can be much more nuanced and complex than the current government’s treatment might suggest.

The most important initial task must be to understand how voluntary organisations actually work: the strengths and limitations inherent in them, and what motivates volunteers to become involved and commit to staying involved. I am not sure that centrally – or even locally – there is much political awareness of the huge diversity of voluntary groups, the fact that they run along different lines and do not all speak with the same voice (often even within the same organisation).

Overall, volunteer organisations (and I suspect local authorities) feel that they are being given little support or guidance on how the Big Society is supposed to work. In some respects I suppose we really are all in this together.

Harriet Riley works in development and volunteer recruitment for a youth charity, and has experience volunteering across the youth sector.


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