My business partner and I have been invited to the Big Society party and apparently everyone who is anyone is going, so I was feeling a little bit churlish and ungrateful for sticking the invitation on the pile of “to be actioned” paperwork.
I think that the big society is brilliant because I think the word big is brilliant, like ‘kind’, ‘new’, ‘caring’ and lots of other words that I find it hard to disapprove of. I also like ‘society’, in fact I think since the publication of Woman’s Own on the 31st March 1987, lots of people have thought that society is a really good thing. But I think that is where my unfettered enthusiasm ends. You see you can’t just put really good things together and automatically incubate an even better thing; otherwise black-pudding pinot grigio would be bloody brilliant. Like life and a tin of pilchards we are looking for the key and someone thinks that they have found it in the Big Society. Next week the new coalition government will have a week to mark the big society and last week it was all over the news. But I think before I get all togged up for the party I’d like to ask a couple of questions.
Before any government asks us to acquiesce with a plan they need to tell us what that plan is. There is a difficult historical precedent with governments which announce a woolly-round-the-edges narrative and ask people to buy into it. We need to ask what is the big society and do I (as an organisation, sector or individual) want to be a part of it before being rushed into answering the third question – what is my role within that society. Unless we ask the first question we are in danger of making the mistake that others have made before of buying into an idea, or ideal, that has so much flex in it that when it becomes clear what the plans are we are too far into the in-crowd to opt out or authentically voice concern.
The second question this week, in preparation for the big society week of street fairs and fetes, is what are we doing in that society.
According to News Night it seemed that our role within the big society is to grab a brush, summon a crowd and get sweeping up. Is the big society really only about more volunteers? Perhaps.
But what are we asking people to volunteer? We live in a world where people are cash rich, sorry scratch that were cash rich, and time poor. So why are we asking people to volunteer that thing that they simply haven’t got? Should we still be asking people to volunteer their time or something else? We perhaps should ask them instead to volunteer their money. Volunteer but not give. When I volunteer something I place something which is and remains mine, at the disposal of a cause I have bought into. So perhaps underwritten social or community bonds are perhaps the future of volunteering where I volunteer money, not time, and expect that money to be returned when it has accomplished that thing that I believed in. Perhaps we should also think more broadly in this information economy about people volunteering their contacts, facebooks, networks, creativity and talent in ways radically different from before.
I was disappointed watching the cabinet minister with whom I had met representing a leading social enterprise, alongside a national homeless agency and a national retailer, all saying ‘we are going to work together to deliver thousands of homeless people into full and fulfilling employment’…I thought that that was the idea of the big society and not running a brush up and down a prom.
Anyway back to the big society bash. I think I shall go and so must answer the most important question, “what shall I wear?” If the last decade of public discourse has taught us anything it is that it is not what you believe but how convincing you look when you are believing it that matters.
Austerity chic here we come…