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?