David Cameron’s flagship Big Society policy has received another blow after Birmingham’s voluntary organisations warned they were still confused about what it was supposed to mean.
The Prime Minister and ministers including Andrew Mitchell, the Birmingham MP and International Development Secretary, have defended the Big Society idea after it was dismissed by the Archbishop of Canterbury as “aspirational waffle”.
The Archbishop, Dr Rowan Williams, made the comment in a book marking the end of his ten-year leadership of the Church of England.
In response, Mr Mitchell (Con Sutton Coldfield) defended the policy, saying: “It’s about crowding in all parts of society, the government, local government, the voluntary sector, civil society to tackle these big endemic problems, which the Prime Minister and all of us have tried to articulate and tackle.”
But a new study carried out by Birmingham’ Newman University College in conjunction with Birmingham Voluntary Service Council found that members of the voluntary and community sector are still confused about the real meaning and vision behind the Big Society, two years after the government came to power.
The concept is seen as vague and inaccessible – or little more than a cover for public spending cuts – by many.
In interviews, a number of people involved in the voluntary sector said they found it hard to take government talk about the Big Society seriously and believed the policy would fade away.
One respondent said: “I’ve read newspaper accounts of the Big Society, I’ve listened to speeches about the Big Society and I haven’t got a clue what it’s about and quite frankly I really don’t know what’s going on.”
Others claimed there was a contradiction between the Big Society and the making cuts in public spending.
And some of those interviewed complained that the voluntary sector was being expected to do work for free which Government previously paid for.
One said: “I think the idea that we can run many of the services with just volunteers is naïve, volunteers aren’t free. I think it’s unfair to rely on a volunteer to run a service that’s actually being provided by a local authority or a government department.”
Terry Potter, senior lecturer at Newman University College, said: “Given the diversity and range of organisations involved in the sector, it’s no surprise we encountered a range of views during our research.
"However, what became clear was that, while the concept of the Big Society is frequently invoked, the phrase is rarely used with any real precision.
“This is creating real confusion over precisely what the Big Society represents: an ideological reduction of state intervention in social welfare; a fig leaf behind which to hide sweeping cuts to public sector spending; or something else entirely?
“This confusion shapes voluntary and community sector organisations’ approaches and, in turn, has a knock-on effect on the services received by communities.”
He added: “A perceived ‘blurring of boundaries’ about who does what and who is responsible for delivering services was a recurring theme throughout the interviews though, with organisations raising concerns that the sector could become a ‘de facto’ arm of the public sector and larger organisations might buy into any agenda just to win delivery contracts.
“Such changes would ultimately weaken the sector, watering down its capacity to be critical and creating a real danger that organisations could lose sight of what they were originally set up to do.”
Mr Potter said: “In summary, whatever the ideology behind the Big Society project, our research demonstrates that the government has much to do to clarify its vision and secure buy in from this essential group.
"While living through periods of change is nothing new for the sector, the changes here are substantive and likely to lead to some difficult and potentially uncomfortable decisions for all involved.”
The Big Society was first set out by David Cameron in a lecture in 2009, when he said: “Our alternative to big government is not no government – some reheated version of ideological laissez-faire. Nor is it just smarter government.
“Because we believe that a strong society will solve our problems more effectively than big government has or ever will, we want the state to act as an instrument for helping to create a strong society.
“Our alternative to big government is the Big Society.”