On the face of it, the Big Society could be a gamechanger. Media rhetoric around the concept says it will create a formal route through which charities, voluntary organisations and community groups will become involved in the delivery of public services. That highlights a huge opportunity for these organisations; the chance to take on roles that many of them have long sought to shape or influence.
But look a little deeper and it turns out the Big Society is something rather different. Rather than a homogeneous whole, it is a tangled web of little societies, each working within its community to provide its most isolated and alienated members with the specialist services they need. The vagaries of human nature mean that it would be very easy for some services to prosper at the expense of other ‘orphan’ services. So success will depend on giving communities the ability and desire to understand the varied needs of their members and the practical support they need to plan and implement strategies to meet them.
We cannot continue with the situation where five good GCSEs at 16 is the major tipping point for lifelong chances and choices, and where people with good qualifications in good jobs receive the majority of publicly funded support for training and skills development. If we are to become an enterprising and responsible society, we must learn to look beyond the average – to the people at the margins. We must find ways of reaching them, supporting them, and narrowing the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
And yes, a network of little societies could do that. But with opportunity comes responsibility – and risk. Put simply, if they fail to deliver, then people will suffer.
For these reasons, third-sector organisations have to be absolutely sure they are up to the task. The situation demands that their people – salaried staff, volunteers, or a blend of the two – cannot learn on the job. They have to be engaged, equipped and skilled to fulfil their roles effectively from day one. And this is a major task, which leaders, political and otherwise, simply cannot underestimate.
At Turning Point, we believe that everybody deserves a healthy and stable life without prejudice. Ironically it is often those that need help and support in achieving this foundation for a productive and happy life that receive the least care. Honesty, safety, respect, challenge, boldness, equality and commitment are essential for us, and will also need to underpin the Big Society and every organisation that works within it.
However, these seven words are of no practical use unless organisations have the capacity and capability to deliver them in practice. Leaders have to be confident that the organisation has the skilled people it needs to fulfil every aspect of the contract, consistently, every day. This means understanding exactly what they need to become effective delivery partners: capabilities that will range from planning and budgeting through to frontline customer care. I fear many have not yet grasped the scale of this requirement, let alone assessed how their organisation measures up.
Workforce development therefore must be a primary concern for third sector organisations in the coming months. Although the Big Society concept is still evolving, many organisations will already know areas in which they might want to get involved. Leaders must therefore take a proactive approach to assessing current resources and capabilities and take action to address issues now, well before contracts go live.
I make these points to highlight some of the very practical issues facing the implementation of the Big Society. While the concept may sound attractive in principle, leaders – and the communities they will be supporting – have to be confident that they are thoroughly prepared to play the role expected of them, well in advance. In essence, to stand any chance of long-term success the Big Society has to draw on voluntary bodies that are professional in all but name. Without that, the concept will be like a house built on sand.
This article first appeared in Public Servant