Tuesday, 22 July 2014

How Third Sector Professionals killed Big Society...and the idea of voluntary initiative


A few years ago I attended an event organised by Julian Dobson and others that was, or rather purported to be, connected in some way with the government's Big Society idea. And, as a fan of the idea, I toddled along in what turned out to be a vain expectation of enthusiasm for thinking about civil society and the way in which voluntary social action plays a part in transforming society for the better.

What I experienced (and this was repeated again and again in my peregrinations round the voluntary sector) was quite different. Instead of people engaged in voluntary social action what we have in this visible part of the 'voluntary' sector are two sorts of people - political activists (almost exclusively from the left of politics) and what we might call 'sector professionals'. I was struck, as I am always struck at these sorts of occasion, by the almost complete absence of any genuine volunteers - people who have got up off their backside and done something for their community.

Today, various of the 'usual culprits' in "The Sector" have rounded on the Big Lottery and Cabinet Office over the manner in which they have funded a couple of organisations closely linked to the Big Society agenda. It is, we are told by these people who made it their mission to distance "The Sector" from Big Society, a terrible scandal requiring investigations and probably executions.

Yet these people - so self-righteous in their condemnation - are the very same people that spent the first year of this government undermining the idea of Big Society. They came up with different versions of it - one's untainted by the dread association. With the result that the winners in the game were new organisations - bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for sure but inexperienced and with ideas that needed work. But where were the experts? All those people from NCVO and ACEVO, all the parasitical consultants upon the multi-billion pound state funding of the 'voluntary' sector?

These self-appointed sector leaders set out to make sure Big Society failed. And they did so for one reason alone - it was an initiative from a Conservative prime minister. To these "sector professionals" (a surprising number having close links with the Labour Party) no Tory could possibly understand "The Sector" and therefore the initiative was either a smokescreen to cover up the evil neoliberal agenda of the Coalition or else a trojan horse aimed at smuggling in cackling Tory businessmen to take over voluntary action.

What these "sector professionals" and their new found activist friends fail to appreciate is that they are the problem rather than Big Society, the Coalition government or evil Tory neoliberals. It is the transforming of voluntary organisations of all sorts - whether working with a particular group people, in a particular place or on a particular issue - from organisations doing voluntary work into sub-contractors to the state that represents the single greatest wound to our civil society.

What these "sector professionals" presided over, and it accelerated under the Blair/Brown Labour government, was the de facto nationalisation of voluntary action. We got to a situation where nothing was deemed possible without government funding and without the employing of these "sector professionals". And just as importantly those professionals were recruited on the basis of their ability to attract funds fron the Labour government, from QUANGOs led by Labour supporters and regional agencies padded with Labour councillors.

So organisations - just like their funders - got stuffed full with Labour supporters. And, when the change of government arrived and with it the Big Society idea, these people were faced with two options - suck up to the evil Tory neoliberals or do what the Labour Party wanted and undermine the policy. Sadly, for the idea of volunteering and of the voluntary society, the sector's leadership chose to dismiss Big Society and campaign instead for the continuation and extension of a role for "The Sector" as sub-contractors to state agencies.

The latest round of attacks on Big Society confirms to me everything that is wrong with those "sector professionals". I see a group of well-paid, middle-class folk protecting their interests and crafting a language of entitlement to do so. Links into government at professional or operational level - along with ministerial fear of upsetting "The Sector" - has maintained the current system of funding more or less intact. New places to broker influence arose - Clinical Commissioning Groups being a fine example - and the idea of people doing something simply because they care becomes ever more distant.

Thankfully there's a whole load of voluntary action still going on and plenty of people loving the place they live and the people who live there. But these people have absolutely no connection to or links with the entitled grant-farmers that dominate the national discourse about the voluntary sector.

It saddens me that an idea such as the Big Society was killed off by a self-interested group more concerned with protecting state-funding and state contracts than with the idea of promoting and encouraging voluntary action. The idea of the state stepping out of the way and letting people do it themselves has been sacrificed so a bunch of well-connected lefties can carry on lecturing us while living off government grants.



julian dobson said...

Interesting version of events here! I suspect, though, that you have no idea what volunteering most of the people who tried to engage with this agenda a couple of years back do or don't do, what their financial circumstances are or what their personal politics might be. The only 'entitled grant-farmers' I've come across lately are the ones who are in and out of Downing Street.

I do agree with you that there's a load of voluntary action going on and plenty of people loving where they live and the people who live there. Sadly many of them feel utterly let down by what the Big Society turned out to be.

Anonymous said...

That's the 'volunteering sector' adequately dealt with.
Now let's get on to the so-called 'charities' - they play exactly the same games, but with vastly greater rewards to all their upper echelons.