Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Big Society - Not Another Government Initiative

Watching the Big Society idea roll-out is causing endless fun as people slowly struggle to grasp it.

On Questiontime this week Jacqui Smith was complaining about the Government cuts and screeched that 'the government have announced more cuts this week and they have now cut funding to voluntary organisations - so they are cutting the Big Society!'.

Eh? Hang on a second Jacqui. If a 'voluntary organisation' is being cut then it can't really be a voluntary organisation can it? It must be a government organisation that uses a partly volunteer workforce mustn't it?

Now that might seem like a small distinction but it's isn't.
Because it's the very crux of this issue:

The Big Society is all about social responsibility. It's not about simply joining a government organisation to do some volunteering its about working out what the problems are in your own community or wider society, finding solutions and, where necessary, organising people to do the work. Why should all good work flow from government? Are the vast majority of charities government run organisations? Of course not.

As I write this someone on the Andrew Marr sofa is wittering about the Big Society being too vague. 'Where do I volunteer ?' she moans.

Perhaps she has illustrates a problem.

David Cameron says in his piece in the Guardian about the Big Society today that 'more active society involves something of a revolt against the top-down, statist approach of recent years.'

The only bit I would quibble with is the 'recent years' bit. Actually I think since the Second World War would be more factually correct.

The reality is that really grasping 'social responsibility' is completely alien to people. After nearly 70 years of an ever increasingly Big State, people are completely conditioned to think that any kind of voluntary organisation must be a government organisation. They don't think 'what can I do?', they think 'Who will organise me?' To take social responsibility, they must first take personal responsibility but they really don't know how to.

We live in a society where everything is provided for people. An education, a job, pre-washed pre-packed food from supermarkets, pre-built houses in identikit housing estates etc etc. The 'choices' that most people make are limited. Which nearly identical supermarket to shop at. Where to get married. Which flat to rent or buy, which 2 or 3 bed house to move up to next.. etc etc. Social Conditioning.

I can just remember being a little kid and seeing old people picking up litter in the street. Now no-one does it. It's the council's job. Those with a sense of social responsibility in a community wouldn't be the ones to pick up the litter, they would be the ones to call the council to complain about the litter in the streets or to phone the 'pot holes' helpline. People are removed from the problem, the only responsibility they take is to remind those who are responsible to do their job.

But what if no-one is responsible? What if the government funded voluntary organisation no longer exists?

Well basically what happens first is people moan. They moan because 1) They like moaning and 2) More rationally they think that if everyone moans a lot that eventually the government or someone will organise a solution.

Thing is the government will not organise a solution in every instance (Labour spent all the money and left a note in the Treasury to tell us so remember) and therefore after a bit of self gratifying moaning people will have to grasp that they need to move onto the third option: 3) Do something about it themselves.

For most people this is a huge step out of an extremely well established comfort zone. But it's one that they are going to have to take and which they are going to have to be slowly coaxed into.

I welcome David Cameron's announcement of 5,000 community organisers. Perhaps they will help provide the stepping-stone to people realising that making an unpaid voluntary contribution is not something awful they have to do because their local or national government can't or won't it's actually a rewarding and enriching experience - just not in cash terms.

And then perhaps people will finally grasp that the Big Society is not another Government Initiative - it's a personal initiative. That's exactly the point of it.


Anonymous said...

I found out about Big Society today..I believe
that your comments re: 'voluntary organisations.' are helpful in what we here in Tasmania (around Local Gov't) are just starting to get invovled in....

Robin Horsley said...

Anon. Many thanks for the feedback. I am glad my observations are of some use to you! Best Regards Robin

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