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Volunteers unimpressed with Big Society

By Vivienne Russell | 3 April 2013

The majority of people undertaking voluntary work demonstrate little enthusiasm for the prime minister’s Big Society idea, research has revealed.

Sixty-two volunteers were asked for their written opinions on the Big Society as part of the Mass Observation social research project. Of these, only eight gave positive comments, while 31 were hostile in their opinion. The remaining 23 expressed no opinion.

Expressions of hostility to the Big Society was not confined to those opposed to the coalition government.

Respondents criticised the concept for its vagueness and for the notion that it could fill the gap left by reduced public services.

One volunteer said: ‘Behind such a weak concept, I think there’s also a more sinister side to the Big Society; the idea that we should cut back and replace state-run and taxpayer-financed institutions with voluntary work.’

Another said: ‘I think the idea in itself isn’t new – but the notion that it’s the answer to reducing the public sector wage bill is new.’

The questions were posed by Rose Lindsey and Sarah Bulloch of the University of Southampton’s Third Sector Research Centre.

Presenting the findings at the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in London today, Lindsey said: ‘The primary ground on which the Big Society is criticised is that it is a political stunt. Some of these observers argued that the agenda is meaningless and lacking in clarity, or a guise for shifting responsibilities away from government.’

She acknowledged that the respondents were not a representative sample of the British public but rather an ‘engaged section’ of the population.

‘Even among this engaged group, there is little desire to take on extra voluntary work. And the majority do not believe that their communities have the capacity to take on sustained responsibility –none were fully confident about their communities being able to provide for all of their needs,’ Lindsey said.

‘One of the potential implications of this finding might be that if social need increases as a result of government spending cuts, individuals may be more likely to prioritise helping those they know over becoming engaged in wider community initiatives.’

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