The great irony of the current Big Society debate is that it has brought the third sector / social enterprise / civil society organisations and issues to the front of mainstream media. While the relaunch yesterday was surprising only in that it genuinely involved nothing new (all the initiatives had been previously announced or, in the shape of the Transition Fund, already over…), it was pleasantly surprising to hear a good half a dozen people I knew plastered across TV and radio. It is a slightly strange situation to listen to Radio 4 / 5 (depending on how broadsheet / tabloid I was feeling at that point in the day) and hearing them introduce Toby Blume or Rod Schwartz or Geoff Burnand or the ubiquitous Stephen Bubb, or to spot Nigel Kershaw sitting behind David Cameron during his speech.
Then I got to thinking about it from a strategic and communications perspective. If they are committed to sticking with it in the long-term, what would I recommend if I was in their position? NCVO have had an interesting stab at this, called “How to rescue the Big Society”, which includes some good, concrete suggestions: doubling the Transition Fund to £200m (and loosening the criteria); addressing the issue of irrecoverable VAT; and (an old favourite) simplifying and modernising Gift Aid. The irrepressible Allison Ogden-Newton has added her on the money (and about the money) suggestions in this post, and expert social enterprise blogger David Floyd has added his thoughts here. Both well worth a read.
My five steps would be as follows; I’m not particularly focusing on motivations here, just what I would do:
1) Walk the walk: If the government is encouraging everyone to do their bit and say that we are all in it together, they have to be seen to be doing that themselves. Secondments, mentoring, volunteering and social action from ministers and civil servants at the centre won’t change the problems, but it will start to address that key issue of “we’re not really in it together, are we?”. Creating a ‘civic service’ was part of the Coalition’s manifesto, and I know there are initiatives and plans under way, but these should be strengthened, given prominence and pushed on. It’s not just about the presentational aspect (though that’s important), but also about them being seen by charities and social enterprises to get a genuine understanding of the challenges (and successes) on the front line. Questions like this (Eddie Mair asking Francis Maude about his own volunteering) would then not be so problematic, and they would not be open to articles like this.
2) Be consistent: The Big Society concept is undermined by inconsistency, between departments, ministers, initiatives and so on. One example is the consistent (and I would argue not misplaced) talk from Office of Civil Society ministers about the need to get money to the frontline, and to not just fund umbrella groups, but those organisations who can help with delivery. OK, that works for me, even if ‘umbrella group’ sometimes gets mistaken for ‘infrastructure’ which is not the same thing at all (and important). But then the new strategic partners funding stuff comes out and states (though it’s unclear how flexible this is) that it will only fund “membership”-based groups….which would tend to mean NOT those delivering at the front line, and include a fair few umbrellas…..That’s a small example, but there are more from across different policies and initiatives and, increasingly, between departments (though the latter is nothing new, of course). Where, for example, is the enterprise and entrepreneurship in Michael Gove’s move back to a more traditional rote learning curriculum?
3) Be honest (and radical) about the finance: I would back NCVO’s call to double the Transition Fund (apparently it was £70m oversubscribed), and broaden the criteria. Because government will pay much more in the long-term in costs than for giving short-term support now. And it will help with the big problem at the moment, which is that all the new opportunities and initiatives (Big Society Bank, opening up local commissioning, etc) are coming after the majority of cuts will have happened. Whether we place this at (central) government’s door for frontloading the cuts, meaning local authorities have to cut, or the fact that other things have taken too long to get started, it’s a huge problem. And it is disingenuous for ministers to ask councils to cut bureaucracy and middle management (though I’ve no doubt that exists) rather than the voluntary sector: most councils aren’t announcing some minor tweaks, but thousands of job losses. So the (unringfenced) sector will inevitably not be a priority. So they’ll need some money now to survive (if you think they should), which you can either distribute via local authorities or directly. Loans and equity aren’t going to solve the sector’s finances via the Big Society Bank, and even its new chair has acknowledged as much. But they have at least got it started, which Labour failed to do over many years, and they could help it work by providing support (investment-readiness, HR, growth strategies) alongside, and by ensuring a proportion has to go to organisations with turnover under a £1m.
4) Change the narrative: Cameron had a start at this yesterday, but the reducing of the idea to just volunteering has become prevalent. They need to expand their range of tangible, practical examples of what it means and how it can change or affect people’s lives. This will be easier once they start giving out money and have some case studies (the Transition Fund helped x to survive and now they’ve gone on and done y and earned enough income to…etc), but is needed now. Giving people power is only an idea until they have utilised that power to do something or change something. In the same way that the previous government often used to talk about empowerment, but meant ‘consultation’ or ‘engagement with’ rather than really giving power to. There is some radical shifting going on (in the Localism Bill for example), but it’s not being communicated positively at all, and that should change. The Big Society Awards look like an attempt to do this, but they are unrelated to government policies, so can come across as just more credit-taking for work that was already being done.
5) Think long and be persistent: It seems set that the government will persist with the idea, and I think that’s right: how much of a kicking would they get to their principles if they ditched it less than a year in? And most change happens through dogged commitment and persistence as much as anything else. This is also part of thinking long-term, but that also needs to be evidenced by their actions and decisions. All ministers talk about the importance of measuring social impact and social value, but this as been pretty summarily ignored in the decisions made at national and local levels. This has to change if progress is to be made; whether this means really getting behind the Social Value Bill (as NCVO suggest), ensuring each government initiative has it built in in some way, reducing the scale of contracts (so they are accessible), or incorporating SROI into decision-making processes, I don’t know. But it’s currently not being done at all, and that is doubly damaging: one, because it disincentivises social sector organisations to properly measure their impact, and two, because it means that decisions take immediate financial savings into account, rather than long-term social benefits and associated cost-savings.
I share much of what the sector at large has said, particularly about the impact of the cuts at local level right now. But, as David Floyd points out, in the right context, Big Society is a good idea, and could hold out much opportunity to charities and social enterprises. Whether the current context allows that to happen remains to be seen; certainly, radical action needs to be taken, in communication, strategy and implementation.