Home Politics The biggest problem for the ‘Big Society’

The biggest problem for the ‘Big Society’

by Barry

In many ways I like the idea of the ‘Big Society’.  Lets face it, anyone who gets involved in voluntary work is already doing it.  From those scout leaders, sports club coaches and managers, to local government, Magistrates and school governors.  They are all volunteers for organisations which in varying degrees help society run.

So I would start by arguing that the concept of Big Society is nothing new, its been around for years.  But it is being launched and Liverpool is one of the pilots.

However, voluntary organisations have their problems.  They require a completely different style of management.  You have to remember that people join organisations for their own reasons, they may be parents and their child is a member, or they are locals who want to see their area develop, or whatever.  And volunteers always hold the upper-hand, they can leave.  They owe no notice or reason, they can just go. A voluntary job will always go to the bottom of the pile when more important things come up.

So, when it comes to having more organisations being run in this manner, my issue would come down to accountability.  If someone is on-board, they need supported.  How do you deal with discipline given that you have none of the usual big sticks (salary, career, immediate promotion etc) to use?  I have ran a number of voluntary organisations and it is probably the most challenging thing I have done, especially as different people bring their own slant to it.  The biggest challenge is to get people to realise that it is their organisation and I am always learning how to do that.  This is a problem with having it as a wide ranging government tool, so much depends upon the skill and quality of the leaders.  I have done it very well in the past, but I have also done it very badly.  It is also very subjective.  Take my current role in chairing the Kingsway Residents Association, there are some people think I do a really good job, yet there are others who love to send me a bit of hate mail and tell me just how they can do it better. I don’t have a problem with that, I just wish they would step up and demonstrate it, but then it is always easier to criticise, and in the day of the internet, Keyboard Warriors have much more impact than every before.

So, in my opinion, the ‘Big Society’ can work, as it has been working for years, but it is not a ‘free’ solution, it will need support and flexibility and more support.  Thought will need to be given on how quality is measured and implemented, and how best practise is transferred.  All of which will be required to get a nationwide deployment.  Can this really be delivered cheaper than current ways?


Joe K August 16, 2010 - 6:48 pm

A well written piece, Barry, providing some interesting insights into the voluntary sector. I’d just point out two missing words in the second line of the fourth paragraph, and perhaps you intended to have a question mark at the end of the last sentence?

I’ve had a bellyful of the best and worst part of the volunteer mindset myself in the last two years. I can say from personal experience that when somebody criticises an organisation without offering to ‘put up’, it can be because they really don’t think there’s a chance in hell of being welcomed with open arms. I’m now secretary of the Barton & Tredworth Neighbourhood Partnership (perhaps I’ve mentioned that before?), and emails telling me I’m doing it wrong are strangely scarce, as scarce as publicity about the BTNP. Maybe there’s a connection…

However, if I did receive complaints, I would graciously thank my correspondent for his/her interest, and encourage them to proffer any help they could to the partnership. Not for nothing did I read that Dale Carnegie book. Not entirely for nothing, anyway.

It’s not a healthy time for VCOs, in any case, which is why any and all interest should be cultivated. Effectively, we have no vice chair and no treasurer, and Moreland Community Partnership and Three Bridges have ‘no active officers’ whatsoever. And this in the month before the city council attempt to impose a ‘one size fits all’ constitution on the eight or so existing partnerships. Residents are cynical about the motivations of ‘community leaders’ and stick very much to ‘old ties’. I think new, original ways of inspiring the community are what’s lacking, and ensuring that they’re kept in the loop at all times. The latter is where I have always seemed to get into trouble, though…

Fiona Nicholson, Education Otherwise August 16, 2010 - 7:01 pm


Tom Waits: “Jim Jarmusch once told me “Fast, Cheap, and Good… pick two. If it’s fast and cheap it wont be good. If it’s cheap and good it won’t be fast. If it’s fast and good it wont be cheap.” Fast, cheap and good… pick (2) words to live by.”


Joe K August 16, 2010 - 8:59 pm

That leaves ‘cheap and good’, which isn’t so bad if speed isn’t an issue, as with longboats on canals. Then again, the partnerships are very cheap (compared with Community Counts, say), and ours id definitely slow, so ‘good’ shouldn’t be a problem. Funny, doesn’t seem to work out that way…

Fiona Nicholson, Education Otherwise August 17, 2010 - 1:44 pm

If it’s not-fast but IS cheap then nothing says it’s got to be good. You could have not-fast, not-good. Just cheap. The whole “false economy” thing.


Joe K August 18, 2010 - 2:17 pm

Yes, I’d overlooked the fact that all three options were covered, ‘cheap and good’ as well. I suppose it’s another way of saying you can’t have everything, that there’s always a trade-off somewhere. And of course, everything can be rubbish. People can take ages to do something, and if they end up doing it at all, do it badly, all because they’re doing it for nothing. They might even want compensating for their time…

But ‘cheap’ is undeniable. It’s been said that we are the replacement for an organisation called Community Counts, which had a budget of hundreds of thousands, and several paid employees, and we have £2,000 for the year. It’s not surprising we move like mollasses. ‘Cheap’ sure doesn’t lead to ‘good’…

bazkirby August 16, 2010 - 9:00 pm

Fiona, thats a great quote. It is similar to the project management triangle of Time Cost and Quality, if you have to make a change, you can keep 2 the same, but the third one has to move. However your version is much more ‘accessible’.

Joe – Thanks for pointing out the mistakes, I have updated them. I am about to propose that the Kingsway RA take on a constitution that is moulded on the city Matson one, though with some significant changes to make it more applicable to us. I think that associations/ partnerships etc are only as good as the people attending, if you don’t have the people attending then what is the point.

Joe K August 16, 2010 - 9:00 pm

I realise, having posted, that the word I was grasping for was ‘narrowboats’. Interesting image, though…

bazkirby August 16, 2010 - 9:27 pm

Normally I’d change it for you, but the thought of a number of Viking Longboats on the Sharpness canal is quite amusing…


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