David Cameron is refusing to give up on his Big Society idea, with a speech tomorrow (Monday) to remind people of what it’s about. One TV commentator was cruel enough to inform viewer that, if this were a film launch, it would be billed as Big Society 4.
I can’t help but wonder if David Cameron hasn’t already missed the boat on this in terms of public attitude? How many volunteer led activities have folded in recent years, because of a lack of people willing to give up their time? Scout, Guide and Brownie groups, along with numerous social clubs and community run halls, to name but a few.
Surly, if there were so many willing people out there, wouldn’t they already be doing it? What is it about Big Society that’s going to bring all these potential volunteers out of the closet?
Even if it does succeed, this drive to turn us in to a nation of volunteers, (now that we’ve pretty much killed off all the shop keepers) has its fair share of negatives. Just like his ministers, David Cameron seems hell bent on subjecting this country to a local government bypass operation. It’s as though councils are being blamed for all the ills in our communities and that bypassing them to recruit a new set of volunteers, will somehow bring these communities back to back to health.
I say new set of volunteers because central government seems to have forgotten that local government already has a large number of volunteers. They’re called elected members and they were put there by their communities.
Until the last government started interfering with the process, local government was very much something you got involved in because you wished to make a contribution to your community and were willing to make some financial sacrifices in order to do so. Now, with the advent of members’ allowance and special responsibility payments that often run in to the tens of thousands, the clarity of this aspect of being an elected has become decidedly blurred. Given the Pickles drive to cull local government senior and middle management and give the job to the members, this blurring can only get worse.
My second gripe about the Big Society idea, is that many of the charities that are apparently going to become the saviours of everything the public values, are often run like full blown businesses. Many have chief executives and senior managers employed on a purely commercial basis, with pay packets to match. I doubt if these people agree to take a reduced salary just because it’s a charity that’s employing them.
So, as with elected members, the public service ethos of volunteering to provide a service to communities, will become more and more blurred over time, as the big charities and their army of well meaning volunteers burrow their way in to the various local government service delivery areas. As we see more and more services transferred from the stewardship of one set of elected volunteers and into the hands of those who are unelected and therefore far less accountable, a major question comes to mind.
Unlike those employed in local government, the senior management of the big charities bring none of the public service ethos that is currently present in local government, but do display much of the commercialism of the private sector. How long will it be before it is impossible to tell the difference between a service delivered by a ‘charity’ and that delivered by an outsourcing company?
Not a major problem in itself you might think – who cares who delivers the service, as long as it’s delivered? The problem is, once you’ve killed off the competition, in the form of the current local government structures and the only providers in the market are the privateers, it becomes a sellers market. The defence industry has already done this via the MOD, now it would seem that it’s the turn of local government. Come on Down The Price Is Right (for those old enough to remember the TV show).