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Government must engage voluntary sector more on Big Society, audit finds

Caroline Slocock, director, Civil Exchange
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Government must engage voluntary sector more on Big Society, audit finds

Finance | Jonathan Last | 8 May 2012

The government’s Big Society initiative is failing to bolster cuts because it is not sufficiently engaging poorer communities, the young and ethnic minorities, an independent audit has warned.

Two years on from the formation of the coalition government, the audit released today by think tank Civil Exchange recommends that the government works more closely with the voluntary sector to engage more people from these groups and help to combat an estimated £3.3bn of funding cuts by 2016.

The Audit finds that the most dependent areas have faced the deepest cuts in spending, and that despite high levels of giving to charities by individuals, donations are not likely to make up for this. It also states that the tax relief cap is “a backwards step”, and that the change in the sector’s funding nature towards contracts favours larger organisations, including private sector options.

Develop goals

Civil Exchange’s Audit ultimately recommends that the government develops and delivers clear Big Society goals, such as poverty reduction and ensuring equal life chances. It should avoid bias toward the private sector and ensure fair access to the voluntary sector and increase its understanding of how the sector works at a local level.

“The Audit found a genuine interest in getting involved in local issues and in supporting charities but also a ‘Big Society gap’ between younger and older people and deprived and affluent communities,” said the principal author and director of Civil Exchange, Caroline Slocock.

“For example, far fewer younger people and people in deprived areas think that their neighbourhoods are pulling together to improve it. The government needs to engage with the voluntary sector as a key partner if it is to bridge this gap. That means forging common goals, ensuring the sector has the right support and giving fair access to Government contracts.”

Reaction to the Audit

Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust backed the Audit, and its Trust Secretary Stephen Pittam commented: “This evidence-based assessment allows us all to judge whether a genuine transfer of power from government to civil society is occurring, or just responsibilities and the consequent blame.  It is an important audit."

Social policy communications agency DHA were also involved in the research, and managing director Daniel Harris told civilsociety.co.uk that the voluntary sector has always been part of the rhetoric of the Big Society, but has been neglected in its delivery. “The sector is disillusioned,” he said. “It never bought into Big Society enough to establish common goals, and it has turned out to be a top-down driven initiative from Whitehall, when it should be just the opposite.”

Karl Wilding, head of policy at NCVO, reiterated this point. “The Big Society has solid ideas, but the problem is that it’s being applied in an atmosphere of cuts," he told civilsociety.co.uk.

“You need a long-term approach for an initiative such as this, and the change cannot be made in a Parliament. It will take a generation of ground level work to achieve the Big Society’s aims, and you can’t just cut the sector’s legs from under it and expect it to still run.

“The government must understand that the voluntary sector cannot be a zero sum gain. If they cut public funding, our sector won’t just expand to fill the gap. It is not our role to replace the state – instead we need to be partners, and use our expertise, like the leverage we have in communities to get people involved and to give them the capacity to be activists.”

Jo Curry, chief executive of the Voluntary Organisations’ Network North East, said that Civil Exchange’s report was further proof that Big Society is failing to help the needy.

“This report provides yet further evidence that Big Society is doing nothing to the benefit the poor and the most vulnerable communities,” she said. “At best the Big Society initiative is chaotic and at worst it is a shambles.

“The reaction to this report must not be a re-launch or a rebranding of Big Society. We would urge the government to sit down with us, and with other charity and community leaders, to fundamentally rethink Big Society, so that it can provide a sensible set policies that will improve the operating environment for charities; increase community cohesion, support volunteering and enrich the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable."

The full audit is available on the Civil Exchange website here.

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