Samuel Kasumu 6.00am
The ‘big society’ was supposed to be the key Conservative policy that would tie the rest together. An underpinning philosophy that could rebuild communities, reshape public services and above all demonstrate that Conservatives could do compassion.
But this ‘big idea’ failed to capture the imagination of the public from the start. And the recent news that one of the first Big Society Ambassadors has has to close his charity can only pile further pain on the tarnished ‘big society’ brand.
Shaun Bailey is the talented community leader and former Conservative candidate. He represents a section of British society - black, urban, working class - that the Conservative party has struggled to engage with in the past. Having failed to win the Hammersmith constituency in 2010, Mr Bailey was signed up as one of the Prime Minister’s special advisers. Yet the excellent charity he founded, My Generation, has now closed.
My Generation’s mission was all about what the ‘big society’ stands for, and its closure is a sad loss for the communities of Hammersmith - but it may actually be the most important thing Mr Bailey does as a Big Society Ambassador. In having to close his own charity, he has demonstrated to the Government and to leaders of similar organisations that he understands and shares the same challenges faced by most voluntary groups today.
There is no doubt that funding has always been community groups’ biggest challenge. And today we are in the midst of an economic downturn, with funding ever harder to come by: there is less of it, and it is harder to access.
During the Labour party’s time in office we saw large amounts of money distributed through local and national government schemes. Grants were more readily available.
But in recent times, funding for services for the likes of children and young people has dried up because local authorities have no statutory obligation to deliver those services. Other lifelines such as the Future Jobs Fund have gone, meaning that many voluntary sector organisations no longer benefit from extra staff funded by the government.
So the voluntary sector faces many challenges and the long-term survival of many of these organisations cannot be guaranteed. Some might see this situation as tragic but I see it as more of an opportunity to create newer, better solutions. Like a game of chess, with an opponent thinking the game to be over, the ‘big society’ may yet have one more move to play.
The Government must look at new ways of reshaping the voluntary sector. I suggest setting up Big Society Academies to train community leaders and give them the skills to identify funding sources that still exist, as well as other key skills (former Labour and Lib Dem MP Paul Marsden wrote of similar things on these pages last summer).
This training could be delivered by companies on a pro bono basis (or even a form of payment by results). The passion of community leaders must be harnessed and supported by training from experts in various fields.
Some major corporations are already donating their time for free to train larger groups of voluntary sector staff and volunteers - but on a smaller scale. This must increase. There’s no doubting the CSR benefits in doing so.
There is a variety of different activities still funded by national and local government but to be able to receive any money many organisations have to be a bit more entrepreneurial. Something like the National Citizen Service offers funding of more than £1,000 for every young person that is attracted to it. This is a lot of money but currently only very big organisations such as the Prince’s Trust and vInspired seem to be winning the contracts.
So how can smaller voluntary groups participate in the delivery of such schemes? Some do, but not nearly enough to fulfil the aspirations of the ‘big society’.
Smaller voluntary groups will need to team up with bigger organisations if they are struggling to survive on their own. Some will seriously need to consider merging. The Government must play its part in revolutionising the voluntary sector, but without taking it over. Make funding available for community groups with fewer strings attached and less bureaucracy in the application stage.
The Prime Minister must also find a way to get those involved in the voluntary sector into paid employment. It should be said that Mr Bailey’s role as a Big Society Ambassador has been unpaid, and he therefore represented those many community leaders who do the work most people claim to be too busy to do, and sacrificing his own time without being fairly recompensed.
There must also be targeted funding available for communities to create solutions where there are gaps in public services.
The ‘big society’ still has the potential to empower us all to engage more with others in our own communities. But this will only happen when the Government supports the people that were involved in the ‘big society’ before it became the Conservative party’s ‘big idea’. More support is needed, more engagement is essential, and a more collective strategy is crucial if we are to avoid a repeat of Shaun Bailey’s My Generation.
Follow Samuel on Twitter @samuelkasumu