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Charities ‘confused and sceptical about Big Society’

By Vivienne Russell | 29 January 2013

There is ‘overwhelming scepticism’ about the Big Society among people working for charities and voluntary organisations, a report has found.

The Third Sector Research Centre’s four-year ‘Real Times’ study of third sector organisations and activities showed high levels of criticism of the language and ideas around the Big Society. Participants in the study thought the concept was confusing and at odds with the realities of everyday living and a contradiction in the face of public spending cuts.

Some even viewed the Big Society as an ‘illegitimate co-option of existing community and voluntary activities’.

Another issue raised was the assumption that working with volunteers was relatively cost-free. Organisations working with vulnerable people with complex and challenging needs needed highly trained and well-supported volunteers, one chief executive said. ‘A volunteer off the street could not cope.’

However, despite this scepticism, respondents also recognised the opportunities presented by the Big Society agenda and sought to position their organisations and activities in line with it.

Rob Macmillan, who led the research, said: ‘Politicians and policy makers are often encouraged to set out clear narratives explaining their vision for the direction of society. But they should tread carefully. If these stories fail to offer compelling and realistic scenarios, they are in danger of being derided or dismissed.

‘The fact that voluntary organisations engaged in the Big Society narrative despite their scepticism highlights their engagement with public policy – but politicians and policy makers need to engage with the sector in ways which make sense in everyday life and at the front line.’

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