Barriers to a Big Society

20 May 11
Andrew Jepp

It’s just a little over a year since the coalition government formed and a new concept of community cohesion was mooted. But news and reports out this week bring into sharp focus some clear challenges to overcome before individuals will unite for the collective good as part of a Big Society. They also highlight the support needed from local authorities and other community leaders to make this happen.

On Monday night, Nick Robinson’s BBC programme, The Street that Cut Everything, quite clearly showed how quickly the concept of empowering communities can come unstuck without clear guidance, education and experience. It also demonstrated the need for local authorities to support, partner and assist the general public and community groups in these activities rather than let them work alone.

While only a short, artificial social experiment, challenging one street to come together to deliver public services from street lighting, waste collection and housing benefits, the programme demonstrated where cracks may lie. It highlighted the strains and difficulties of tasking the people within a community to reach unanimous agreements and find the time to volunteer their services.

This final point was explored in Zurich Municipal’s own research, released on Tuesday, which found that nearly two-thirds of people said they would be unlikely to volunteer to help community organisations deliver local services that in the past may have been provided by their local council. The main reason for this?  Work commitments and other things to do in their spare time.

The Cabinet Office's Red Tape Task Force, led by Lord Hodgson, also released its report this week, Unshackling Good Neighbours, which highlighted findings from a nine-month review into the rules and regulations that put people off giving their time and money to good causes. Recommendations on how to cut bureaucracy included seeking ways to protect volunteers from the consequences of well-intentioned voluntary acts.

Finally, conclusions from the report Powerful People, Responsible Society from the Commission on Big Society, set up by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations suggested there is a long way to go before the general public and the voluntary sector fully understand what the Big Society actually is.

According to research in the report, 78% of UK adults believe the government has failed to make the concept clear. Among other findings and recommendations, the report identified that some communities will be better placed than others to turn the Big Society vision into reality.  And it also appreciated the need for voluntary organisations to adapt and change if they are to grow their role in empowering individuals and communities.

So, what can be taken from all of this if local authorities are to work with the general public and charitable and voluntary organisations into the future? It seems to be the case that, for public involvement to become a reality, people will need to be shown how to play their part and how positive the experience can be.

For communities to unite, councils and voluntary organisations need to lead the way by coming together in partnership to support, communicate and educate the general public on the detail of how to get involved, the level of commitment required and the wider achievements that can be made for the collective good. Managing risk and removing barriers while supporting people along the way will become all important for local authorities.

Andrew Jepp is director of public services at Zurich Municipal

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