The government’s Big Society project has had a mixed start; even its strongest advocates would accept that. I saw one aspect of the Big Society last week in Devon and was left wondering why it should be so difficult to sell.
Volunteering is a key aspect of the Big Society—people taking the initiative and contributing to improvements in their environment, community and in fixing social problems. A simple example of this is people volunteering in National Trust properties. I visited one last week, A la Ronde in Exmouth. I was with my daughter on a cold and damp half-term holiday. Visiting A la Ronde was an attempt to find some respite from the rain. En route there was a sign to a local donkey sanctuary.
I confess that I didn’t mention this to my daughter—her fondness for supporting donkey charities has caused me trouble before, as I wrote on this blog.
A la Ronde is a quaint 18th century property with 16 sides that was owned by two spinster sisters. That is quite interesting. Of greater interest to me was that it seemed to have been opened for half term and staffed with volunteers (at least in part) as an act of public service. There were relatively few visitors and the tea rooms were staffed but empty. But the volunteer guides were friendly and immensely helpful to my six year old daughter. They talked about dolls houses, models made out of shells and dumb waiters. She was absorbed.
The volunteers did this out of a sense of delight in the property and a desire to showcase this to any visitors. In this sense they are providing a perfect example of the Big Society in action.
There is nothing false about such manifestations of the Big Society. When you see selfless and public spirited endeavour like this, it is easy to see the merit in the idea of the Big Society. It should be applauded and celebrated.
Government has done too little such celebration so far. At times it has looked as though some ministers and advisors have little grasp of the reality and extent of such voluntary activity. Everyone I know in the voluntary sector rolled their eyes and shook their heads in disbelief when they heard the Cabinet Minister, Francis Maude stumble in response to a question about his own voluntary activity. This reinforced the view of some that the real Big Society agenda is about state withdrawal rather than a positive view of private action.
The scale of government funding cuts to charities makes selling the Big Society more complicated. Prime Minister David Cameron has on occasion pleaded that he was talking about the Big Society before the need for spending cuts became apparent. He is correct in this, but any sensible advisors would have realised that the scale of spending cuts had to influence the narrative, rhetoric and promotion of the idea.
Government’s apparent inability to sell the Big Society is sad. It fails those people volunteering in Devon on that cold and wet February afternoon. In turn, it fails all those who might benefit from their efforts and those of millions of other volunteers around the country. The voluntary sector really does deserve better. I think even my daughter would grasp that.