big society research
Updated on: 12/06/2012
More than two years after the coalition government came to power, members of the voluntary and community sector (VCS) are confused about the real meaning and vision behind the Big Society, according to research carried out by Newman University in conjunction with Birmingham Voluntary Service Council.
The findings, which are published today, also reveal that Government narratives on the policy are often not taken seriously within the sector and the concept is seen as vague and inaccessible or little more than a rebranding exercise by many.
The research, which was carried out by Newman University’s Children, Young People and Family Research Centre, included interviews with a variety of VCS organisations, a literature review and analysis of shifts in Government policy towards the sector from 1960 to the present day.
Its findings suggest that, while there is confusion, fear and scepticism around the Big Society policy, there is also a sense of opportunity and optimism about the future of the VCS sector, which members feel has always lived through periods of substantial change and will outlast political ideologies.
Terry Potter, Senior Lecturer in Working with Children, Young People and Families at Newman University, said: "Given the diversity and range of organisations involved in the sector, it’s no surprise that we encountered a range of views during our research. However, what became clear was that, while the concept of the Big Society is frequently invoked, the phrase is rarely used with any real precision.
"This is creating real confusion over precisely what the Big Society represents: an ideological reduction of state intervention in social welfare; a fig leaf behind which to hide sweeping cuts to public sector spending; or something else entirely.
"This confusion shapes VCS organisations’ approaches and, in turn, has a knock-on effect on the services received by communities."
The analysis and literature reviews revealed that community-led and organised groups have enjoyed an important role in society over the last 60 years, whatever the political ideology of the time: providing support to local communities while using their independence to act as a valuable bulwark against an overbearing state or counterbalance potentially amoral markets.
While increasing professionalisation of the sector and growing reliance on Governments for funding could be seen to reduce this independence, their ‘on the ground’ position means VCS organisations still have key role to play.
Mr Potter continued: "The relative independence of the sector and its inherent ability to better understand needs on the ground than large Government departments is a key component of VCS organisations’ value.
"A perceived ‘blurring of boundaries’ about who does what and who is responsible for delivering services was a recurring theme throughout the interviews though, with organisations raising concerns that the sector could become a ‘de facto’ arm of the public sector and larger organisations might buy into any agenda just to win delivery contracts.
"Such changes would ultimately weaken the sector, watering down its capacity to be critical and creating a real danger that organisations could lose sight of what they were originally set up to do."
The researchers also revealed concerns over a perceived push towards volunteering in the sector as a route to employment; with organisations needing more volunteers to deliver services but with less organisational capacity or funding to create genuine opportunities. This approach has already resulted in some previously paid positions being lost and replaced by unpaid, volunteer roles.
"This shift, particularly at a time of growing unemployment, is seen by many VCS organisations as revealing a lack of understanding of the sector," Mr Potter continued. "It ignores the real cost of delivering services, de-values previous and ongoing activity and potentially marginalises smaller organisations and volunteers who strive to be critical, innovative or independent.
"With public spending cuts creating opportunities for VCS organisations to fill in gaps in service provision, concerns were also raised about private-sector businesses encroaching into the area (both from a competition and ideological point of view), as well as the potential for ‘bigger’ organisations to swallow-up delivery contracts to the detriment of the smaller, user-led organisations that work with some of the most vulnerable and marginalised members of society.
"In summary, whatever the ideology behind the Big Society project, our research demonstrates that the Government has much to do to clarify its vision and secure buy in from this essential group. While living through periods of change is nothing new for the sector, the changes here are substantive and likely to lead to some difficult and potentially uncomfortable decisions for all involved."
The full report is available to download below.
Big society report