Poverty and the Big Society: Views from the Community Sector
This pamphlet aims to stimulate debate within the voluntary and community sector about the potential of the ‘Big Society’ to deliver greater social justice and reduce poverty. It is made up of several short contributions which grew out of a roundtable discussion with community groups and grant-making charities organisations in November 2011.
The discussion was prompted by the belief that the Government’s desired outcomes for the Big Society may not be those of many community organisations. By getting stakeholders (especially those experiencing poverty and disadvantage) to clarify what they would see as success, could the concept of the Big Society be given a practical focus and made to serve the interests of those that are disadvantaged?
Civil Exchange, Democratic Audit and DHA are doing a baseline assessment of the ‘Big Society’. They have taken the three government goals from published government statements on the Big Society (community empowerment, social action and the opening up public services) and are carrying out an audit of how far these goals being achieved.
But these three government goals are not necessarily the goals for Big Society held by local community groups. In our discussion the community goals were around enhanced democracy with the re-emergence of democratic control over institutions both of government and market; building on the strengths of current community driven, collective action; promoting civil liberties, social justice and citizens’ rights and finally reducing poverty and inequality.
The government objectives fail to clarify who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the Big Society. For example, it is possible to open up public services to different providers and at the same time reduce access for disadvantaged groups (e.g. handing over a public swimming pool to a private leisure club). It is also possible to increase social action by requiring unemployed people (as a condition of their receiving benefit) to carry out work experience in the voluntary sector. This is unlikely to be positive for the individual or the voluntary group.
The three objectives need to be underpinned by some more fundamental outcomes not yet specified. Given the goals that were emerging in our discussion, those outcomes ought to be to do with those in poverty having a demonstrable voice in decision-making in order that they can increase social justice and reduce poverty and inequality.
Key points made in the discussion
- The principles behind devolution to community groups are not new and the general principles of community engagement and collective action are widely supported. The government needs to listen to community groups and build from their experience. It depends on decision makers changing their policies to ensure better quality support for disadvantaged groups rather than seeking to co-opt such groups to support an agenda that has been defined by those in power. It starts by listening rather than with a government objective of a smaller state or opening up public service.. All this can be easily undermined by a commissioning and contract culture with a focus on competitiveness and cost cutting.
- The concept and brand of the Big Society is irretrievably damaged as it has emerged at a time of public expenditure cuts which have dominated the scope for action. Actions justified under the Big Society brand are divisive (see 4 and 5 below), reducing volunteering and increasing inequality. Even so, this was still an opportunity that should be made the most of.
- ‘Big Society’ is really being ‘Big Government’ with the voluntary sector increasingly tempted by and often cajoled toward the market place and away from its traditional sphere of opening up public servicesMany in the sector would argue that this reduces its ability to identify gaps, innovate, meet evolving and specialised needs and lobby from the grassroots.
- A gulf is opening up between the large charities and the small voluntary community groups who could not easily tender for contracts. Examples include: an adventure playground which had been run for 20 years by the local community but had now lost its funding to a larger voluntary contractor; voluntary groups which no longer had the resources to support volunteering; and a Work Programme prime contractor trying to mandate clients into small voluntary groups, making a mockery of the concept of volunteering and providing no financial support.
- Government is deciding who belongs to the Big Society by, for example, refusing to place its ‘community organisers’ with homeless and refugee groups and by defining the ‘deserving’ poor who should receive state support. It is denigrating the role of institutions like trade unions and legal aid that underpin free association and civil society but are not seen as part of Big Society. Relationships that can truly bring about sustainable social action involve free association within place and interest group and are not those driven by central or local government.
- Big Society is strongly associated with a political aspiration to empower ‘small’ societies through the transference of governance powers and fiscal responsibility to ‘sub-governing’ citizens. This raises fundamental questions about how the various sectors of civil society can regain their position as the creator and defender of democracy. Collaborative governance through local government actively empowering its fellow citizens, enabling communities to generate their own civil transformation, is what is required.
- The ‘Big Society’ is both seductive and dangerous. The government’s promises of a shift away from public services, to a fusion of charity and private sector, is really a cover for a shift to the private sector and a reduction in democracy
- The focus should be on civil society and how it can strengthen itself to further democracy, equality and social justice rather than be the victim of the market and passive instruments of government. Partnership and network coordination is one meaningful way to respond to the opportunities and challenges. But this requires resources which are difficult to mobilise when organisations are dealing with public spending cuts. Voluntary and community sector organisations should be supported to share successful engagement strategies and learning outcomes from neighbourhoods across the country.
The Way Forward
Civil society can use the focus on the voluntary and community sector contained in the term ‘Big Society’ for its own purposes. These include the preferred relationship between the state, the market and civil society; and what it wants to achieve in terms of democracy, social justice and poverty and inequality reduction.
Further conversations should be supported linking small civil society with the big voluntary groups delivering services and those who held resources.
Pointers on how to build civil society and how not to do it could be useful, particularly identifying what both central and local government is currently doing that is reducing the power of civil society and identifying alternative strategies.
NPI remain committed to taking this work forward with local community groups. A greater consensus is needed around what civil society wants to achieve in relation to poverty and social inclusion/justice before an amended form of Big Society can be given a practical focus and made to serve the interests of those that are disadvantaged.