Big Society: The golden age of volunteering:

AnnieM, July 20, 2010

What’s the big idea?

Prime Minister David Cameron has called on “forward-thinking entrepreneurial community-minded people”  to come together to set up community-building schemes for local areas. Part of a revisited pre-election pledge (that didn’t inspire much excitement at the time) Cameron’s Big Society aims to draw on the voluntary services of Britain to deliver public services – for free.

Where is it being tested?

The idea will be trialled in four areas: Liverpool, Windsor and Maidenhead, Eden Valley and Sutton.

How does it work?

Each area being trialled will be allocated an ‘expert organiser’ and a number of civil servants. Residents with ideas on how to improve their local area will approach the organisers and civil servants who will see the ideas through to fruition.

Prime Minister David Cameron said in his (re)launch speech: “If you’ve got an idea to make life better, if you want to improve your local area, don’t just think about it – tell us what you want to do...Whether it is in building affordable housing, tackling youth unemployment, or inviting charities to deliver public services.”

What are the critics saying about it?

At a time when the public sector is starting to feel the pinch, the Big Society initiative is being greeted with much cynicism. Many feel it is an underhand way of delivering vital public services for free, under the guise of volunteering. There is no question that it will save money in the long run, but some voluntary groups are wanting to know where the funding for these schemes will be found.

There is also the fear that if the schemes don’t work, it will pave the way for private companies to take over the running of public sector organisations. If that happens,  the sector will be one step closer to becoming profit-making machines that cuts corners on service delivery. You only need to look at the Railtrack story to see how that works.

Yet Cameron and his Government believes that in five or ten years time people will look back at the Big Society concept and see it as something that changed the face of Britain. “When people look back at this, they will say, ‘they didn’t just pay down the deficit, they didn’t just balance the books, they didn’t just get the economy moving again, they did something really exciting in our society’.” He added: “ I think we’re on to a really big idea here, a really exciting future for our country and today, I hope, it’s one more big step towards that goal.”

Potentially, the idea is an exciting one: it could indeed become the golden age of volunteering in Britain. But in the cold light of day, with public services already tightening their purse strings, it could mean resources in the sector become even more stretched under the scheme.

As Ed Miliband says in The Mirror, “This is a 19th century or US-style view of our welfare state which is: cut back the welfare state and somehow civic society will thrive."