Where’s the Big Society when you need it?

September 24, 2010 by
Filed under: Education Matters 

Last night Newsnight told us what most of us knew already, that local councils are being forced to play slash and burn with services in a bid to cut around 25% out of their soon-to-be-shrunk budgets, in anticipation of the Comprehensive Spending Review this Autumn.

This is why I was less than surprised when a charity worker told me he was being forced to make around 70 of his core staff redundant today, and this is why: government pays for a great deal of what the charity sector does. This is especially so in the case of unpopular but essential services, such as homeless halfway homes, adult education centres and ex-offender programmes, these are programmes charities would not be able to get funding for elsewhere. With local councils cutting back on how much they will spend on such services, the charities providing them are having to make people redundant. Whether the government intended for this to happen or not, local councils have heard the message “cuts, cuts, cuts” and now they are doing so.

Wasn’t the Big Society supposed to stop this from happening?

Well, the concept of the Big Society, as far as I understand it, goes something like this: government pulls back on some of the services it provides and works with charities, volunteers and businesses that step in, form partnerships and help tailor and co-produce locally envisaged, cost effective solutions. This has the potential to be exciting stuff.

Indeed, think tanks and government are already coming up with ideas of  how the Big Society could work on the ground. We have had Matthew Taylor appear on Newsnight to talk about the RSA’s approach to the subject (and big up the work of Projects in general, which can be viewed here), our Connected Communities programme has published a report on the part social networks will play in making the Big Society real, there are ideas for a Big Society Bank and National Citizen Service and significant research has been made on the potential of co-produced local services.

But ideas take time. The ink has barely dried on the speeches outlining some of these plans. The pilots for the National Citizen Service are not due to start until mid 2011. The comprehensive spending review will be with us in November.

Some of these ideas really are quite exciting, and plausible too. Take co-production for example. The Nacro Preston Restorative Justice project already enables local people to work with the police and other government agencies to rehabilitate criminals locally, with ordinary people staging mediations between offenders and their victims and helping to design restorative justice programmes themselves.

The lesson we can draw from examples like these is that the Big Society can work, but that it takes more than just a smattering of time, effort and investment (which is not what you want to hear when you have been told you live in an age of economic austerity). Significant funds have been channelled into recruiting and training the volunteers who take part in the aforementioned Nacro project, with the commitment required by volunteers not insignificant. This makes the Big Society timeline fairly incompatible with that of ‘cut and cut now’. With the idea of the Big Society still something of a stick figure drawing, as opposed to a finely articulated policy, I fear time has already run out for those losing their jobs as we speak.

Comments

  • http://twitter.com/davidandrew52 David Andrew

    So similar to the clash between rhetoric and reality in the 1980′s – rhetorical support for the voluntary sector, cuts in budgets – particularly in areas such as addiction programmes.

    Even when not actually cut the short term budgets are a severe restriction on the development of services. Vince Cable may attack short-termism in the city but will he do anything about short-termism in government.

  • http://twitter.com/davidandrew52 David Andrew

    So similar to the clash between rhetoric and reality in the 1980′s – rhetorical support for the voluntary sector, cuts in budgets – particularly in areas such as addiction programmes.

    Even when not actually cut the short term budgets are a severe restriction on the development of services. Vince Cable may attack short-termism in the city but will he do anything about short-termism in government.

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