Civil society organisations must put themselves forward to help government create its Big Society vision, says Sir Stuart Etherington.
For some time I have been talking about the challenges that lie ahead – for our society as a whole, and for our sector in particular. The election is now behind us, and at the heart of the new political agenda we have the ‘Big Society’. It has been presented to us as an ambitious programme that will create a climate of empowerment for local people and communities, with an emphasis on social responsibility and community action.
As ever the devil is in the detail – we need to be clear about what this means in practical terms. As with the programmes of all political parties, there are a number of questions that we should legitimately be asking. How will the ‘Big Society’ be translated into reality? What might it mean in practice for people and communities? And what can it mean for our sector?
But we should not be just asking questions: I believe we must play a leading role in setting the direction and the content of this agenda. We have an opportunity over the coming months to inform and influence the thinking of our new government. It is important that we take this opportunity: we must work with politicians to help flesh the vision out, to ensure we achieve the society we want to see, and that voluntary and community organisations are able to play their full part.
The government has made clear that whilst the ‘Big Society’ is the opposite of the big state, that does not mean that they expect the state to simply step back and expect others to fill the gap. This is an important point. In my view, if the ‘Big Society’ is to be successful, all three sectors – the state, the market and civil society – must work together to build the good society. A society built on fairness and social justice, where we seek to ensure that every person has the opportunity to fulfil their potential, where people are able to speak out, when they witness an injustice or where they wish to achieve change. And where they are listened to and involved in decision-making. It is a place where people can freely give their time and money to take forward the things they care about.
Whatever the ‘Big Society’ will be, it will not be a society of mere observers. It will depend on active and engaged citizens. One of the priorities is to reinvigorate ‘civic action’: to bring people and communities together, giving citizens, communities and local authorities the power and information they need to get involved and solve the problems they face. I welcome this commitment to strengthen local democracy and devolve decision-making: a good society is one where people have a real say in the decisions that affect their lives. Government has already proposed steps to achieve this, such as devolving greater power in planning decisions to neighbourhoods, giving parents a greater say in the running of schools, and giving citizens greater opportunity to influence policing priorities. These are all important ways in which individuals can come together and participate directly in decisions that impact on their communities and their services.
This however raises a number of questions. How can we be confident that local authorities will effectively engage with their communities? How do we ensure that the voices of all are heard, including those who are hardest to reach, not just those who find it easiest to be listened to?
I believe the role of civil society will be vital. Healthy, thriving communities depend on the support of our organisations. Many voluntary and community organisations have developed expertise in reaching out to all groups, including the most marginalised; giving them the skills, confidence and support they need to speak for themselves; assisting them in transforming services; and helping them become agents of change instead of objects of policy. It will therefore be essential that local authorities work in partnership with our sector: we strengthen the local decisionmaking process by ensuring that the widest range of voices are heard, enabling local councillors to have a better understanding of the needs and concerns of all individuals.
Of course active citizenship extends beyond civic engagement. As David Cameron said in the hugo young lecture, the ‘Big society’ demands mass engagement, a national culture of responsibility and commitment to social action. I fully agree with those who want to see the development of new social norms around volunteering: people across society should be encouraged to actively engage in the causes and with the organisations they believe in.
Five days paid leave for every employee
The voluntary principle is the defining essence of our sector. any plans to promote engagement must respect this. The role of government is to create a supportive environment, ensuring that regulation is appropriate and proportionate. And government should recognise and celebrate voluntary action at both the national and local level, for example by allowing all employees at least five days paid leave so they can undertake voluntary activity; and by introducing a new ‘Community Day’ bank holiday – or ‘Big society’ day – that promotes and celebrates the work of voluntary and community groups both locally and nationally.
The government has also identified transforming public services as a key element of the ‘Big society’ agenda. This is another area where our sector plays a critical role. Our organisations identify need, design solutions and deliver innovative services. Their links into, and work with, communities enable them to engage with and understand parts of society that others do not, and they ensure that the type and quality of service is informed by their knowledge of user needs. Moreover, the ability of voluntary and community organisations to give voice to people’s concerns and aspirations, and to give them the support and confidence to speak for themselves, means that through this campaigning work they make a fundamental contribution to active and healthy communities. They create opportunities for people to talk to each other, and learn from each other, to identify their collective needs then work together to find ways of meeting them.
But we must be realistic. While demand for our support and services is likely to intensify, substantial cuts in public spending are happening already, and are likely to become more severe. There is a very real risk that our organisations are seen as soft targets for cuts, or as a cheap option for providing services. It will be critical that in the coming months we face these challenges head-on.
'Our involvement will require us to restate long-held values and principles: it is critical that our sector remains independent and that its independence is respected'
It seems clear to me that our new government recognises and respects the contribution we make to the well-being of individuals and communities, and there is a clear consensus that we can and should be enabled to take on a greater role in building the ‘Big society’. This should not just be about the state pulling back while allowing the voluntary and community sector to crowd in.
What is required is a much more fundamental step, whereby state and voluntary action work not as separate forces but in collaboration, supporting each other through the different roles they play. In order for this to happen, existing structures and organisations within the voluntary and community sector need to be properly supported, and it will be essential that in relation to all aspects of this agenda government works closely with local and national infrastructure organisations, building on their expertise, rather than bypassing or duplicating the achievements already made.
There are obviously many challenges ahead in helping government achieve this vision, especially considering the constraints on our resources and capacity. Our involvement will require us to restate long-held values and principles: it is critical that our sector remains independent and that its independence is respected, and we must, of course, maintain a focus on our mission and our objectives.
But that does not mean we must not work with government. I truly believe that there are big opportunities ahead: for us to be part of a culture change, and create a thriving new society that furthers the common good, where individuals feel a sense of belonging and empowerment. We need now to move forward, to set out clearly the contribution we can make, and help deliver a better society for us all.