Big Society? What Big Society? (2013 update)

It’s summer in the voluntary sector and there’s very little to report...  oh, apart from the open season on CEOs and charity costs. Yawn. I’ve even managed to tidy my desk, and....oh what’s this? A paper on something called “Big Society” from 2010. Now, what was that again...?

It was THE BIG IDEA of the Coalition Government back then, but, well, the very fact that it’s a phrase which has now gone completely missing from government rhetoric tells you a lot, but is there anything going on at all in the BS machine?

At the time there was a lot of murmuring from the voluntary sector that “The Big Society” was in fact what all of us do and work towards every day of our charity lives, and that we didn’t need Government meddling. In fact, some (including myself) went so far as to say that the Government backing for “Big Society” might actually stir up people against it, thus strengthening our version of the Big Society: – the one without bells and whistles and fairy lights on it, without fancy new funding models, ToyTown banks and Community Organisers parachuted in to ‘stir us up’ into Government-approved action.

The sole surviving remnant of the original idea, and where most of the money has gone, is in Public Service Delivery – an idea so fraught with difficulties, dangers and dragons for your average charity that it almost defies belief. Yet this is the one thing politicians are pinning their hopes on: Attempting to change the fundamental nature of the sector by turning it into a big business. Luckily for the charity sector, most charities are not in a position to undertake such work, yet those who pinned their hopes on it as a source of sustainable funding have either been dumped on from a great height by the (mainly) private sector contract holders or gone to the wall.

Time will tell how this particular strand of BS will pan out, but for most of us it will be panning out elsewhere on the horizon, as a thinly-veiled attempt by the Government to marketise charity’s bounty in the very largest charities, some of whom are more like businesses anyway.

It is true, as Charity Times Editor Andy Holt points out, the “Big Society” might have fared better if it hadn’t come at a time of massive recession and cuts in spending. But maybe more good money being thrown after it might have actually created a behemoth in a china shop, a white elephant charging through the undergrowth of society…

I suppose if Joe Public had had a bit more money in his or her pocket, brighter prospects and a cheerier outlook then what might Big Society have become? Who knows. For this did not come to pass, and now it seems as if “Big Society” is out to pasture.

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There have been many casualties along the way, but with the flagship project Your Square Mile coming out this month with damning statements of the complete and utter failure of Government to back it financially, meaning that it has only recruited 140 people instead of the 3 million it was meant to have by this September, there can be little doubt that Cameron’s Big Society is dead. Long live Big Society!