Monday, 6 September 2010

Big Society: whither?

It is probably to early to send flowers to the funeral of this idea. But the patient is ailing.

There are few signs that those involved in making cuts understand the importance of protecting our sector and its vital work in supporting communities and beneficiaries. The Coalition promised fairness in this process. How will that be achieved if the sector has its funding slashed?

This week is crucial. Important meetings of the Spending Committee are due. Departmental budget proposals are being examined. Have they calculated the effect on the sector and how fair their proposals are?

Let's be clear to any Big Society romantics (and the so called Big Society Network is a leader in that field) money is crucial. And do not imagine if the State withdraws there is an army of people just itching to get involved and fill the gaps. Or that miraculous giving rises dramatically.

I am a great supporter of the plans to build a hugely increased role for the sector in delivering services. This has both an economic and social underpinning. It has a clear rationale; more cost effective service closer to the user. If the Government had stuck to this instead of layering on community organisers, more volunteering etc they would have had more traction with the idea. And, as often happens with new Governments they have hyped it and over promised.

And the brute reality is about to hit in the Spending Review.

I am preparing for my Lecture on 22 September (to book click here) and in doing that members have been sending me histories of their charities. A particularly interesting though more recent account comes from Cliff Southcombe. It makes fascinating reading.

"I was appointed a "Project Manager" of Community Routes (a community transport project in the notorious Hattersley estate in Tameside) in 1979. One of the reasons I went for the job was because of the title Manager as opposed to "Co-ordinator" which was more common then. I recall thinking that we needed to move away from a community development role (which to me a co-ordinator implied) to a more business approach to such projects.

My first meeting with the Chair, Richard Armitage, was him saying to me that he was not interested in social or community work, what the people of Hattersley needed first and foremost was MONEY and JOBS. Within three years we had transformed a small community transport project into England's first and largest community co-operative setting up a number of viable businesses, opening up shops and a factory unit employing local people. We were one of the first organisations to set up as a company limited by Guarantee (1982).

It was also a time of co-operatives - and collectives - so I found myself - or so it seemed to me - in a unique position of a "Manager" of a democratic but community based organisation. We experimented with social auditing to make sense of the management and government structure we were developing.

The Board and Richard realised that my role was becoming much closer to business than community development and my title was changed to "General Manager" in about 1983.

We were probably ahead of our time. We even had an audacious plan to buy the local shopping centre! "

There are two key points here. No good lecturing people in deprived communities about volunteering more or taking more responsibility. What deprived Communities need is MONEY and JOBS as they discovered in Tameside.

And we also need a professional approach in our own sector. It was a point I discussed at a great meeting this morning with James Harding, the Editor of The Times, and their sterling reporter on our affairs, Rosie Bennett, over at the Times office in Bermondsey.

James made the rather pertinent point that as attention is increasingly given to our sector and our delivery role grows then we will be held increasingly to account. He is right. We will need to demonstrate our impact. We will need to become ever more professional. Just declaiming our saintly virtues will not be enough. And that also means the wimpish and self defeating approach taken by fundraisers over the recent chugging story will not do. We have to be robust as a sector. Not afraid to defend our efficiency and to change our practices when we are not.

And on the way to the times I followed my usual practice of popping into a nearby Church; this time the magnificent Hawksmoor St George's. I have often seen it from the road but never popped in. What I had not realised is that the interior was badly damaged in the Blitz and so now a modern Church nestles within the Hawksmoor walls and splendid tower. And another treat. The grave of Thomas Raine, founder of the great Raine Foundation. He was a huge benefactor to the sector, establishing various charities such as a school in 1719 to educate boys into apprenticeships. Another reminder of our country's glorious charitable heritage. And how cool to see this on the 70th anniversary of the start of the Blitz! A reminder of just how much damage was done to London and our great British cities.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

'Let's be clear to any Big Society romantics (and the so called Big Society Network is a leader in that field) money is crucial. And do not imagine if the State withdraws there is an army of people just itching to get involved and fill the gaps. Or that miraculous giving rises dramatically.'

Stephen I think this is a point really well made. We need to ensuring that the government both locally and nationally hears it too.

The Young Foundation's Geoff Mulgan article in the Sunday Times makes the same point but his view, based on evidence, suggests a more severe and serious outcome 'Sometimes politicians talk as if government and society were in a zero sum game: more government necessarily means less society, and less government means more society. This was a fashionable view among Reaganites and Thatcherites in the 1980s.

Unfortunately, in places as varied as Russia and US inner cities, it was tested and proved wrong. When government retreats, it's as likely that crime and gangs will fill the space, with less trust not more.' (You can see the whole article on the Young Foundation website.)

Mark Santos
Positive East