Big Society on a Small Budget – can more really be done for less. Notes from a Conservative Party Conference session.

Damian Hinds MP and Michelle Smith of Barclays talking about Big Society
Damian Hinds MP and Michelle Smith of Barclays talking about Big Society

I’m trying to cover as many Big Society sessions on the Conservative Party Fringe as I can get too –  not least looking for any clarity on what it might mean.

The first one was run by The Citizens Advice Bureau:  Big Society on a Small Budget – can more really be done for less. Notes from a Conservative Party Conference session.  The Panel Was Gillian Guy – Chief Executive of Citizens Advice BureauDamian Hinds – MP for East HampshireTherese Coffey – the MP for Suffolk Central and Michelle Smith, Head of UK Consumer and Community Affairs for Barclays UK Retail Bank and Barclays Corporate.

Sifting through my notes there were a number of things that struck me:

Gillian Guy from CAB explained the extent to which they use volunteers

12.5 million people helped on the web.   20,000 volunteers, already represent a good start to the big society. We want public services to be simpler and we want to the voluntary sector and communities to be trusted.

Damian Hinds outlined what he thought are the key elements which will underpin the Big Society…

  • Language and the mood is important – as a government we need to show that we are turning to the right people for advice.
  • Programme of devolution to local councils (when you devolve planning to individual councils you can take more interest)
  • Direct empowerment, right to bid taking over a community facility
  • Free schools programme, people now know that they could decide to make their own school
  • Information revolution, open data the web. – there will be enough people in anyone location to hold power to account
  • Big Society bank to provide extra finance
  • Encouraging volunteering – government needs to get its employees out doing volunteering.

Therese Coffey – MP for Suffolk Central key thoughts included:

  • We need to remove the mentality of the civil service culture.
  • We need to ensure that government does get out of the way.    Some aspects of the equalities act will hamper organisations trying to deliver the big society.
  • De-complexify government.  Need to provide some finance. Unemployed should be expected to go out and do some work in the voluntary sector.
  • The National citizens service is over cautious.
  • The other risk is there is a vacuum at the moment –  can the third sector flesh out some of the vision please – don’t wait for the pilot areas.

Michelle Smith seem to catch the mood of the room when she talked with real passion about how the volunteering done by Barclays staff benefits neighbourhoods and the business and the staff.  For example…

Half of our staff are actively involved in their communities on a regular basis.  We match charitable giving and fund raising and provide time off .  This improves staff retention and  performance, staff who volunteer are A third more likely to be rated A performers than those who don’t.

Worth listening to this interview….


  1. Brian Homer says:

    Was there no discussion about how far volunteering should go? My view is that we will lose professional public services at our peril. If Government is going to get out of the way why do we need politicians? And the coalition is riven with differences on this stuff – while they talk of devolving power to local authorities on some issues they also talk of taking it away on others like education. In my view there are many contradictions. It’s all very well talking about local people taking over local facilities but who pays? There are many many local volunteer organisations currently under threat of closure because of withdrawal of funding. Many already rely on volunteers but will not survive the cuts. Of course there is a place for volunteering in society but equally a society in which public services are stripped of professional workers will in my view impoverish us in many ways not to mention take out valuable paid work from the economy as well as accumulated experience.

  2. Hilary Burrage says:

    So, what exactly is new? People always say they want less ‘interference’ – until they don’t like something about what’s happening, or they need more resourcing. That’s not cynical or startling, it’s just how people are.

    But I am seriously worried about the idea that Equality Act arrangements may get in the way of what BS volunteers want to do???? Who are they doing it for, if that’s how things are?

  3. Nick Booth says:

    I’m hoping I shall hear some other stuff. This isn’t the definitive answer to what government hopes to do – its is interesting and illuminating though

  4. Nick Booth says:

    I made notes and shared some of them. I don’t think that’s the atmosphere I read. I’m one of those people who’s been doing stuff for years and don’t get the impression that the government thinks they’re doing something radically new.

    The ambience was mostly about figuring out a sensible way forward in world where budget cuts will happen and also one that believes that civic activism thrives often (but not always) when the government steps back a little.

    I’m not seeking to defend any 1 point of view. I am trying to share what was said.

  5. I run a community radio station on thin air and the good will of our volunteers. We do much that embraces the whole idea about the Big Society – our volunteers commit time and passion to a station that gives them a voice. In exchange we train people in all sorts of skills, not just broadcasting, but in the office too. This includes valuable transferable skills that can help, for instance, long term unemployed people build up their confidence to get their careers back on track. It’s not all about getting on air. Yet funding is just pants at the mo. A funding fair I went to outlined how the Big Lottery has had four times the number of applications recently. At the same time, it’s budget is already low because of cash being diverted to the Olympics. If you talk to the county or district councils, they are skint and shortly to become more so in the wake of the public sector cut backs. Trusts are also reporting that they too have seen applications shoot up. Where, I ask, is the cash to fund this so called Big Society? I am a great believer in people power – the trouble is, somewhere along the way there has to be finacial support for the core costs in order that people who work in the third sector can continue doing the great work they do. If there isn’t much of a pot in some basic shape or form, then the fundamental infrastructure necessary for such organisations can’t be funded, in which case…they will cease to exist. Very few people can give all of their time and energy for free, even if their heart is in it.

  6. Having just re-read my mini-rant am aware there could be the impression that I am making a point that we should be funded just because we exist, which isn’t true. We get results. I have seen people go from rehab to radio to going to university, single mums going onto training at the local college in office admin and into a job, a bloke who had a breakdown coming to us on work placement and now, within weeks, building up his self confidence and positively bouncing into the office with the responsibilities we’ve given him, and a disaffected youth, who eyed us suspiciously at first, now getting up at the crack of dawn to co-present and tech op a news programme with someone the age of his dad, giving something back to the community. I could on. We deliver. We help people move on and change their lives for the better. We just need funding to keep on, keeping on, somehow, from an ever shrinking pot.

  7. Should we assume that the BS is in reality an activity for people who have time and money – if not always appropriate skills and experience?
    And, if so, how does this help, and once again, what’s new?

    (Now, if it were genuinely about civic society and valuing what many people alreayd try to do – those with time and money amongst them, of course – that would be different…. but I think the comments above tell us what the underlying requirements are?)

  8. Yeah, it’s a bit like the whole idea of the Victorian paternalists – ie rich people who did good deeds for the poor. Those doing the good deeds felt worthy, and useful and sometimes the poor benefitted. The main thing was though, those paternalists, the middle and upper classes, could afford to do it for nothing. And that sentiment still thrives today. Trying to get core costs is really tricky. Its just presumed that if an organisation is a community project it should exist on goodwill alone. Yet on the other hand, third sector organisations do have a duty to ensure that Health and Safety is adhered to, CRB checks are done, volunteers are co-ordinated and projects run smoothly and get results. And rightly so. Getting an unpaid volunteer to do all this, and take full responsibily isn’t always feasible. I am in full praise of a civic society, but time is also, sometimes, money.

  9. Absolutely; and even if ALL the things mentioned above could be done at no financial cost (and on peppercorn rent of premises and / or phonelines etc – we all wish…), there’s still the insurance – which is both a core essential, and must ALWAYS be paid for with real money.

    And insurance is not available until all the other things have been done, in my experience; and even then it precludes many activities / actions which BS promoters seem to think can be done by (untrained, uncertificated?) volunteers.

    NB These are not quibbles; they are critical aspects of third / voluntary sector activity which have for years been faced by us all, and which truly are not (nor should they be) a matter of choice.

  10. I agree. The Big Society is a lovely woolly idea from a well meaning, in some ways, but misguided chap who happens to be our leader. At this rate, with the cuts to the public sector, lack of funding for the third sector, it’s all going to hell in a hand cart. Hey ho. We press on.

  11. Brian Homer says:

    Hilary and Claire sum up many of the feelings I have about BS. It is poorly thought through and doesn’t take account of what is actually happening in society. I’m just finishing two impact assessments for voluntary sector orgs both faced with heavy cuts. The County Council involved is not, to my knowledge looking at the big picture, just looking to cut it’s budgets. Both organisations already run on a comparative shoestring using a mixture of paid and volunteer staff. They do not have “waste” to cut and both do vital work within their communities. Just the sort of work you would think a community minded Government would want to support and encourage. And in both cases the paid workers do many times above and beyond what they are paid to do. Instead of the support they need they are threatened with cuts. How does the Goverment local and national think they will be able to provide even more contribution than they already give. It’s nonsense. Elsewhere a national youth charity I know is also threatened – directly by the Government nationally who have reduced the funding to volunteering charities dramatically. The CEO met a (if not THE) BS guru at number 10. The charity is an infrastructure one serving a range of small organisations. Asked where the money to continue was going to come from the guru said – turn yourself into a social business and look for rich benefactors! This echoes points made above. He also reinforced what is becoming very clear – there is NO money behind BS. I’m all for making the most of public sector money but so far I’ve seen nothing that shows BS as anything other than a rather nebulous, vacuous even, concept. As mentioned above BS seems to be something that the rich and the retired can have a go at. Many of us will be too busy trying to make a living in a society where professional public and voluntary/third sector workers are regarded as expendable. Whose going to organise BS – that will be done for free too I guess. This may work in well off communities where there are often organisations already in existence and where demands on public services are comparitively low but I fear for areas of unemployment and deprivation.

  12. Paul Webster says:

    Brian, agree with all you say. As a national infrastructure organisation we hear almost daily of local support providers closing or severely restricting their services as their money to offer vital connections etc. dries up.

    Nationally and locally these organisation are already examining spending to the last £, there is NO slack, if there is no money there are no services.
    How exactly does Therese Coffey expect “the third sector flesh out some of the vision please”? We already have a very clear vision, we’ve been doing “big society” work for decades! All we need are resources to continue the work.

    OK, if we offer ‘paid for’ services, events, publications … even become a social enterprise, who will pay? Those who may want access them won’t have the resources to purchase them!
    If we take over and run free schools or ownership of former local authority premises and services will the resources and knowledge needed to effect these transfers be freely available?

    No one is asking for luxuries, just for enough to get by and continue to maintain effective local front-line work and for the ability to link some of these ideas together and share our ideas.

  13. Nick Booth says:

    I think two things are being conflated. We have cuts and we have this idea of Big Society.

    The problems you identify are largely problems of cuts.

    Had we faced a different set of economic circumstances and the government was not cutting then I think this government would still have pursued the notion of Big Society. It was an idea being crystalised by visits to Birmingham before the economic crash and the need for cuts became glaringly apparent, when the issue around spending was an argument of 1% of gdp here or there.

    Over here Rory Stewart set’s out how he understands that notion:

    “It is clearly not about the government per se, the individual or business, probably not primarily about the voluntary sector. It is about community, particularly about local democracy. To use a Bhuddist analogy the noble truths might be….

    * We have a World dominated by government that is to rigid
    * Solution to this is de-centralisation
    * The path is through something called the big society

    Big Society is not an object so much as an activity, not a funding stream or a pot of money.”

  14. How does Rory (or anyone else) claim to be able to demonstrate, in our complex world, that governments are ‘too big’ and dominate us?

    Does he say it applies to all of us? What about ‘underdogs’, who need protection (and help?

    I truly can’t see that claiming to be aligned through metaphor is justified, when many people would say modern society does indeed need regulation and control, with so many of us in it…. which is NOT, please note. to say this regulation is done well, or even always beneficially; just that it’s required in the interests of the common good.

    So let’s start by asking, FOR WHOM is this domination ‘too rigid’?

  15. Brian Homer says:

    I don’t buy this government has become too rigid or too “big” line either. Hilary makes a good point who will protect the “underdogs”. BS implies that given all the information (freed up data) that well meaning citizens will make the right choices of their own accord while the Government sits back having given neither money not significant resources to the process. This flies in the face of all the evidence and also political realities. When people have data about sex-offenders for instance they virtually get out the sticks and burning torches whipped up by an irresponsible media. When child benefit is threatened we get not reasoned debate but a middle class backlash fueled by middle England newspapers. (I’m personally not sure on this issue – on the whole I’d keep child benefit as it gets to those who need it without acres of forms but I’d raise taxes on the better off to compensate.) When the poor and the weak are targeted as they most surely are by the coalition all we get are stories in the liberal ‘serious’ newspapers.

    Without the moderation and leadership of Government I think there are many things that would go wrong in Society. Most people put their own interests first (sadly). Rory himself uses an example that in truth tells a different story. He says people will always find the time to protest so there must be time for them to be constructive. To me this proves that in fact people will always want to stop something they perceive as changing their own lifestyle. In Cumbria at the moment (a base for BS) the National Park is struggling to build affordable homes for local people – because the well off and the retired don’t want development in their idyllic landscape however well planned. So who will moderate that debate? Clearly the well off and the retired have more of the power and influence than the less well off locals who want somewhere to live. What does BS say about that?

    I also do not buy that it us critics who are conflating cuts and BS. Tory thinkers have openly talked about this being the opportunity to be radical and carry out their ideas. It is those people that are deliberately using the crash to make sure their views of a small public sector are realised. They are the ones pedalling the public sector is always wasteful and the private sector will always do better. This is a nonesense both public and private sectors have good and bad examples. What is actually happening is that the public sector is systematically being undermined and more and more services being opened up to private sector providers. Sadly the last Government did a lot to promote this. BS is a diversion. What will actually happen is not a revolution in which local people grasp power for the good of all (seriously do you think the Tories want that?) but services being in the main delivered by contracted out suppliers (see Suffolk’s plans) at reduced cost – not because waste has been eliminated but because service levels have been cut while profits are skimmed off. Of course there will be pockets of good news for some social enterprises and the like but the majority of the services will be provided by large, increasingly multinational companies. Think Serco, Capita, Mouchel Parkman and the like. These are the companies who have already swept up many of the contracts in Education and Health.

    BS has nothing to say about how the power of the market will be moderated to provide services to benefit all. If Tories do support BS (and this is far from clear) then it will be because the market will be freed up even further. And that is why people start thinking of Victorian philanthropy and paternalism. That’s what BS gurus think like and all the evidence says that society will not be relying on itself but hoping for companies to do the right thing. Some will and many won’t. And what you will get is support for the +desrving” and “Good causes. And those in society thought of as feckless or deliberately looking to line their own pockets (by having “too many” children for instance) and grabbing benefits will be marginalised. While de-regulation means the tax dodgers and the big bankers and business men will be free to use their power and influence (which extends far wider than the Little England of BS) to line their pockets with only the occasional slap on the wrist and of course hand outs when they need it. I’m sorry I’d love to like BS but in my view we are being sold another concept like the Third Way only even more dangerous. Right now losses (and cuts) have been nationalised while profits have been ring fenced as private.

    Whoops that got to be quote long! Back to the Impact Assessment on the small Youth Charity that provides vital support to young people with meagre funding which is just about to be cut. Is it fair – of course not. Will the concept of BS help (whatever it is) of course not. The people running and volunteering in this organisation are already exploiting themselves working above and beyond. There is no waste. Will someone tell me – or more importantly them – how BS will help. Organisations like this have bee doing BS-like stuff for years with little reward. And instead of being supported they are likely to be put out of business. There is a choice. We don’t have to cut essential services. We could raise more in taxes. But there is no political will. Just hot political air.

  16. Thanks, yes, I guess most of us are moving that way.

    I hope it’s OK to add two more, rather earlier, pieces (by me) which are also along these lines – all comment of course welcome! (21 April)

    and (9 September).

    I anticipate that, as we examine the BS idea more closely, we will see that it has less to do with ‘noble truths’ – however much its more well-meaning theorists would wish otherwise – than with brutal ones.

    * We don’t live in a world where everyone, withour fail, is nice to everyone else.

    * Our ‘communities’ are far more complex, and more densely populated, than in whatever golden age we are supposed to refer back to.

    * Proper, decent social living requires resources (as well of course as a degree of good faith) in the interests of us all.

    The less all these matters are acknowledged, the more some will benefit to the disadvantage of others.

    And the more likely it will become that our communities / society (call them whatever you prefer) will end up being unsustainable overall.

    I really don’t want the state to rule every aspect of my life (or anyone else’s), but I do want it to take responsibility for things which I, as an individual citizen, cannot assume control / guidance over on my own.

    Rhetoric about noble truths strikes me as quite unpalatable, in the face of the brutal truths that our ‘communities’ are experiencing demographic change, at a time when resources of every sort – economic, environmental etc – are challenged even in the UK, one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

    Let’s get real, put noble truth analogies back into the world of (if we’re being kind) ‘wishful thinking’, and admit that deep INEQUALITY – did anyone see the alarming report on inequalities which Trveor Phillips has just presented? – is at the heart of many social problems.

    For whatever reason/s, the BS just doesn’t take that on board.

  17. Meanwhile the “bonfire of the quango’s” axes Capacity Builders and also those who administered the Grass Roots grant. Oh, and the local college has had to increase the cost of the courses we ran in partnership with them from £15 for five weeks to £47. Strangely enough, the take up for the last course was too small to make it viable, so it was cancelled. Another funding body which helped us go into schools, Playing For Success, has been axed. That means we can’t train more people to go on air, unless they have the money to pay. So much for the Big Society rhetoric. Meanwhile, we diversify, appealing to businesses to come to us for media training, asking parents to subsidise the courses for their kids, try to sell the odd T shirt, run our own courses at a slightly cheaper rate, but we can’t afford to offer a subsidy to those who can’t afford to pay. Fingers crossed, it’ll be OK. Just as well I was born a natural hustler!

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