The Independent View:Big Society by any other name would smell as sweet

I agree with Simon. And Sarah.

At our fringe event at last week’s Lib Dem party conference in Liverpool we were pleased to hear fulsome support for the work of charitable and voluntary organisations, and encouragement for them to get more involved in public life and in public service delivery.

And both Sarah Teather and Simon Hughes emphasised something very important in their remarks – David Cameron may have coined the phrase ‘Big Society’ but it’s a concept that chimes with beliefs about responsibility and community held by all parties.

Simon Hughes reminded us the UK had a long history of charitable organisations providing support to local people – such as fellow panellist Iain Tuckett from Coin Street, the social enterprise who began the revamp of London’s Southbank in the 80s – and said that while he thought half of Lib Dem Ministers were happy to use the new lexicon, the other half refuse, saying they already have perfectly good words to describe it!

Ben Page from Ipsos MORI presented data showing half the people polled don’t understand what Big Society means. Yet it’s hard to imagine that most of those people don’t know of a valued voluntary group in their town, or haven’t ever used local services supplied by a non-profit organisation.

Those of us who work either for, with or in charities, social enterprises, co-operatives, mutuals or voluntary groups are less concerned about language, we are much more concerned with ensuring that whoever is in government recognises and supports the great work done by these organisations. We want to help these vibrant, innovative organisations become stronger, more secure and able to do more of what they do best – helping the most needy and the most vulnerable in their neighbourhoods.

We shouldn’t waste time arguing about vocabulary – the real challenges are in terms of finance and organisation.

These groups are, by definition, often small and lacking in both money and financial expertise. We have spent the last 8 years investing for social and financial return  – using grants, loans and business support – and have witnessed that support increase the scale, sustainability and impact of  more than a thousand community organisations. Grants have an important role, but there is a real appetite in the sector for new financial products that encourage organisations to improve their financial management and therefore enable them to serve their communities better and for longer. Loan finance, innovative new performance related contracts and Social Impact Bonds can transform the sector, and challenge the old-fashioned notion that it should rely on government hand outs or philanthropy to survive.

At a time of government spending cuts, the best way for these organisations to get more funding quickly is by accessing the cash available in public sector contracts. The sector’s diversity is one of its great strengths and while not all organisations will want to get involved with public service delivery, many will, but face (unintended) barriers to doing so.

Typically these organisations are hard for commissioners at both national and local level to contract with, even when commissioners want to, being small, financially frail and without the capacity to win or deliver big contracts. The solution to this is for the sector to organise itself. By collaborating and presenting itself to commissioners as consortia, suitable (and interested) charities, co-operatives, social enterprises and voluntary organisations can access funding in the form of contracts. Greater involvement in public service delivery is a win-win: the organisation benefits from becoming more financially secure and in doing so builds its capacity to deliver non-contractual services – like taking on more volunteers or keeping facilities open later – and local people gain high quality, community-based, locally-led services.

This consortia model has already worked at a national level – empowering a group of sector organisations to win the biggest contract of the DWP’s Futurejobs programme – the time has come to roll it out at local government level too.

When money is tight, it’s important that the great work that civil society organisations do isn’t lost in an argument about terminology. The message to Ministers, MPs and local government is – call it Big Society or call it localism, just make sure you call on the community organisations in your area to see if they can help you do more for less.

Jonathan Lewis is Chief Executive, The Social Investment Business.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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10 Comments

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Sep '10 - 2:10pm


    At our fringe event at last week’s Lib Dem party conference in Liverpool we were pleased to hear fulsome support for the work of charitable and voluntary organisations, and encouragement for them to get more involved in public life and in public service delivery.

    Here is how my dictionary defines “fulsome”:

    “excessive, cloying, nauseating, insincere”.

    I’m assuming that is not what you meant.

  • Andrew Wimble 30th Sep '10 - 2:11pm

    As far as I can see, all “Big Society” is is a Tory buzz-word designed to oppose “Big Government” without actually commiting them to meaning anything. I am not surprised that most people are not sure what it means

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Sep '10 - 2:20pm

    There is a “yes, but” here. Which is that what you are proposing is really that jobs which people used to get paid for now get done by volunteers working unpaid. Fine, but can we extend this to e.g. cutting out the bankers and accountants and the like and getting that work done by volunteers as well? Or is it only the little people you want to sack in order to save the high and mighty paying tax and hence paying salaries to those little people?

    Sorry, but your claim that being concerned over this is just “wasting time arguing about vocabulary” doesn’t work. What I have written above puts in a very simplified form why some are suspicious of the “Big Society” rhetoric. Especially when they note it is coming from people in a political party whose main political aim is to suck up to big business which pays them very large amounts of money, and to argue the somewhat dubious point that the richer the people at the top of big business become, the better it will be for the rest of us.

  • Dictionary.com has ‘Complimentary or flattering to an excessive degree’

    Ed

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Sep '10 - 3:06pm

    On the meaning of “fulsome”, my dictionary is quite an old one (Collins 1956 edition), and it’s often interesting to find how it shows subtle changes in the language in just a few decades. I was aware the definition I gave above was an old-fashioned one, and intended meaning had shifted since then. Ed gives a sort of mid-way point, but it may well be that practical usage has shifted all the way to Jonathan’s non-pejorative intention.

  • >Ben Page from Ipsos MORI presented data showing half the people polled don’t understand what Big Society means.

    You mean half said they DID understand?!

    >these vibrant, innovative organisations become stronger, more secure and able to do more of what they do best – helping the most needy and the most vulnerable in their neighbourhoods.

    But those who do understand (that I’ve spoken to) think:
    a) it’s a shame the needy/vulnerable have to rely on volunteers and charity. A return to ‘Victorian values.’
    b) think it means doing things on the cheap and an excuse to cut the services supplied by councils etc
    c) think it means the needy/vulnerable depending on patchy help that could stop at any time if there aren’t enough volunteers in a particular area or the funds run out

    >the real challenges are in terms of finance and organisation.
    >These groups are, by definition, often small and lacking in both money and financial expertise

    ..and d) wonder who is going to provide any of those things, when councils are already cutting back funding to people like the Citizens Advice Bureau.

    You can call it what you like, but I suspect ‘the Big Society’ worries/scares more people than it inspires.

  • the big society means small government large coluntary services – this means massive cuts – including to the third sector. It means private business runs welfare systems for profit – it means vast swathes of legislation go – the question I asked last week was re assisted suicide how would the big society deal with this interested in views

  • it may well be that practical usage has shifted all the way to Jonathan’s non-pejorative intention.

    *NB. I’m not the same Ed as the above poster!

    Fulsome is definitely a pejorative in my book. The fact that misuse of it is widespread doesn’t make it any more correct!

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