Monday saw the launch of David Cameron’s third sector showpiece, the Big Society. The Daily Mash spoofed this with their article on the Wide Society, but quite frankly their version makes far more sense.
This whole agenda shows a complete lack of understanding of the sector and once we cut through the hyperbole all we are left with a series of cost-cutting measures and some cleverly disguised privatisation. Alex Andrews at the Guardian has written a very good article on the potentially ironic outcome of this fanciful scheme, suggesting that the power that the Tories so gleefully ripped from workers in the 1980s could actually be returned to them. Unfortunately I don’t subscribe to this as a likely outcome. More likely I feel, that the power will return to the private sector, leading to further job losses and a stunting of economic recovery.
Voluntary and community organisations know too well the pitfalls that come with employing volunteers. The whole agenda is built on the fanciful notion that all volunteers are skilled, reliable, willing, committed… and free. Now, dear Conservative, I’m sure you know that you get nothing for nothing in this world. In your idealistic middle-class world, I’m sure it’s a jolly good laugh to go along and help those horrid homeless people by serving them a few potatoes at Christmas. I’m sure it makes you feel good too. I bet you feel great as you retire to your range rover and drive back to your detached house in the sleepy little suburb just outside the city centre. As you lie back on your new designer sofa and turn on your 90-inch television to watch your new blu-ray DVD I’m sure you have a lovely warm feeling inside. And of course you’ll do it all again next year, won’t you? Oh, you are such a jolly nice person. Tally-ho, old chap.
Meanwhile, in the real world, third sector organisations are struggling to finance even the most basic equipment due to stretches in local funding. Appropriately trained volunteers are difficult to find. Oh come on dear boy, would YOU want to work in an office – FOR NO FINANCIAL REWARD – where you have to SHARE your desk? Where you have no funding to market your services or pay a PR company, so you have to produce promotional materials YOURSELF? Where YOU have to answer the phone and talk to all sorts of riff-raff because a receptionist is a luxury that cannot be afforded? And I hate to tell you, but if your computer goes wrong and you lose your emails, you will have to wait DAYS for volunteer to come and fix it. No service level contracts here. Oh and God forbid that you have to manage your own diary…
Many voluntary organisations lack the basic infrastructure to commit to new contracts without some degree of additional financial support, but of course this will not be cost-efficient under the Big Society (incidentally I keep typing “Bog Society” and then correcting it. Can’t help but this is a far more accurate description though…) so the contracts will no doubt end up with existing national organisations who are able to transfer their existing structure and procedures into new territories across the country. Certainly Care UK’s move into Brighton now looks a whole lot more suspicious.
While I would like to welcome the concept I am suspicious that a scheme that should be returning power to local people will actually result in them becoming more and more isolated. Decentralisation will no doubt help improve some services, but will hinder others. The current post code lottery when accessing funded services will become even more hit and miss, and without control from central government some unruly local providers may feel they are able to do as they like.
This is yet another badly thought out plan, with the Tory government once more doing its best to distance itself from the dirty work that needs to be done.