Can charities finally make the Big Society pay?

(BSMG) Liban Obsiye –Imagine an entire community of volunteers working hard to manage their own public services. Friendly neighbours and relatives living in the same areas working together to ensure that they organise themselves to deliver what the large incompetent State and its pen pushing bureaucrats under New Labour failed miserably to do. Imagine been able to replace all those so called public sector non jobs created, apparently, to make the employment figures appear better with services specifically tailored for individual communities funded by these pointless bureaucrats salaries?  I agree I can’t but the Prime Minister, Mr. David Cameron not only imagines this but he is also firmly going to press ahead with it.  Unlike his policy on reducing housing benefits and privatising Britain’s forests and woodlands, the so called son of Thatcher is not for turning on this flagship policy which even confuses some members of his own party.

 To prove he is serious he will set up the Big society bank which will provide direct funding to community groups running key projects in their localities. How the bank will be fully funded is still unclear but what is certain is that Mr. Cameron is intent on using money in dormant bank accounts.

Many on the left of the political spectrum have referred to the idea of a Big Society as nothing more than a con and a cover up for the deep public service cuts to come. Some even were seen wearing “Does my society look big in this” T-shirts. However, humour aside, the simple fact is that the big society appears to be here to stay and regardless of individual’s perceptions of it and its motives, all local charities and community organisations, supposedly the real beneficiaries, need to prepare to take advantage of these radical changes in public service delivery in decades.

The Neo-Liberal Thatcherite politicians have always been wary of a big state which they claim is run by self serving and wasteful bureaucrats. Since 1979, when Margaret Thatcher brought to an end the political consensus which existed from the ending of the Second World War, there has been a systematic attempt to weaken and decrease the State provision of public services. This was the era of New Public Management (NPM) which advocated for the use of private sector management styles and methods to combat perceived inefficiency and as a result ineffectiveness within the public sector. There was greater emphasis on outsourcing, buying in management from professional consultancy groups, audit, inspections and targets. This trend because of its perceived success, is been pushed forward in an unprecedented and aggressive fashion by this new coalition government in the form of the Big Society which envisages local people running their own schools, libraries and public services.   

Arguably, there are some jobs in the public sector which baffle critics and yes, some parts of Council services such as youth and play, support for minority refugee groups, Community development and education achievement management, especially for underachieving students, and parental training and support in schools can benefit from external service support and provision from community organisations that have the experience and expertise in these areas. Ken Clarke, the Justice minister, made it clear in his proposals to parliament that imprisonment is not as effective as some retributionist think and that at worst it is a total waste of resources. He has expressed his interest in working with the third sector to rehabilitate offenders and this is a clear sign that the Conservatives are very serious about the Big Society agenda as this policy is totally contrary to past Conservative policies on Criminal Justice.

If it is inevitable as it appears, how can small community organisations benefit from this? The greatest advantage of the Big Society agenda is that the third sector is recognised for its valuable role within the policy process and now is more politically favoured by the current administration which gives them legitimacy and bargaining powers which they did not have before. Now instead of third sector groups justifying their roles and funding requests to the Local Authorities which administered and commissioned services, the Local Authorities have to almost justify why it should stay in house. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, was recently quoted as saying, “The State will have to justify why it should ever operate a monopoly” in public service delivery and in an era of savage budget cuts, justifications will properly fall on deaf ears. There was also the greater likelihood, because Local Authorities were in charge of their own commissioning processes, that the distribution of funds could have simply been based on reputation and links which would have not been equitable. However, the Coalition government which the third sector groups hoped initially would provide, unlike most Local Authorities, funding for public service delivery AND capacity building is also cutting funding to these groups but some in the sector are hopeful that the Big Society will provide them with greater opportunities to both influence policy and deliver it.

“I have worked in the Charity sector for over 12 years and we survived on the little handouts we got from the Council and other funders which were far too small to achieve the objectives they wanted us to achieve,” said one former charity employee who did not want his identity to be disclosed. “We were in a position where we subservient to the Council Officers and to their policy agenda’s but where as they were been paid, we were doing their jobs for pittance.”

“Top down management structures do not work when engaging with hard to reach communities for obvious reasons and it is time that Charities working with these groups were properly funded to continue doing what they do best,” argued another man who also did not want to be identified. ” In the end Council Officers also come to us for support and it would only be legitimate, fair, cheaper and more effective to directly fund charities working with hard to to reach communities in all areas far earlier in the process from central government funds.”

Clearly many in the third sector have been awaiting the arrival of the the ideas behind the Big Society in mainstream politics as it promises a far better and sustainable future for them. However, in order to benefit from it, charities, especially those small ones run and set up to assist refugee communities in the UK, must be flexible, innovative and not have overlapping missions and services. These charities and organisations should pool their resources and expertise together and limit the current duplication of services that exists in order to effectively compete with the more established larger charities that also operate in their fields of expertise. Many charities approached for the purpose of this article thought this idea was too radical in that they feared losing their niche and

Some suggested that if there were some incentives they would consider this option but the fact is that under the rules of New Public Management all service providers, even charities, must compete to survive and the incentive for collaboration for the smaller charities working with new communities in the UK is their collective survival.

Despite the recession many Local Authorities are still commissioning services and offering grants for work but these are dwindling in both numbers and financial value. In order to survive this economic down turn, even if the Big Society comes to full fruition, all charities need to be innovative in the way they operate and deliver their services. Simply put, they need to operate like commercial businesses. One way of achieving this is by building partnerships with businesses which can provide them with expert advice, training and support as well as some potential financial backing as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility policy.

If the ideas behind the Big Society work than they would change the way public services are delivered permanently in the UK. The voluntary sector is key to the Big Society as they are able to assist the government in achieving greater financial efficiency due to their heavy reliance on and use of community based volunteers. No community should tolerate poor public services and the Big Society gives them a chance to not only get involved in an unprecedented fashion but it also delivers the future of local communities in to their own hands. For many this appears to be a wonderful utopia that is more legitimate, efficient and thus potentially more effective in the long term when compared to the heavily centralised system that currently exists in the UK. But in order to capitalise on this policy and participate in the greatest restructuring of public service delivery in decades, charities, especially smaller ones working with the most vulnerable in society, need to work together, build alliances and work harder to create trust among each other and within their wider communities.   

Liban Obsiye.

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