By Alex Oliver
One of the more-commented on features of David Cameron’s Party Conference speech in Manchester was how little he mentioned the ‘Big Society’. Twice, in fact. You could easily have missed it. But maybe this is less surprising when you learn that the most recent figures from the government’s Citizenship Survey show volunteering and community participation rates at a ten year low. These are tough times economically and socially. People’s resources are being squeezed. The scope for community involvement is reduced as a result.
However, in our research this year on volunteering, a programme conducted for our public sector think tank the IIPS, we found that belief and interest in the concept of community involvement is still strong. 33% agree “I would like to become more involved in my local area”, a rise of 3% since 2010. People cite a whole range of reasons for involvement – from social benefits, to gaining more control over important local issues to directly self interested motives like gaining work experience to get ahead in a competitive job market.
But the barriers to involvement previously identified in IIPS research remain high: lack of time and energy, low levels of confidence, a fear of being excluded or not fitting in and perceptions of red tape.
And this year, more than ever, we saw a growing suspicion – even hostility – regarding the motives of ‘Government’. Any suggestion of overt incentives, or even too much encouragement from government in the form of benefits, tax rebates or (heaven forbid) mandation, were roundly rejected by our respondents. So perhaps it’s not surprising that community members leading local clean-up operations after August’s riots (cited by David Cameron in his speech as a great example of a ‘social movement’), rejected the Big Society label.
So should the government should forget about the Big Society and stop investing in the range of initiatives kicked off to make it a reality? Well, not necessarily. Our research clearly shows that there is a real need for more facilitation to get a wider range of people involved – particularly beyond the so-called ‘civic core’. The Evening Standard’s Get London Reading campaign is an example of how inviting people to get involved has resulted in large numbers of new volunteers from previously under-represented groups like younger men. And there’s still a need to reduce bureaucracy, create structures and share information to support and enable those willing to get involved. Government at all levels could have an important role to play here – along with other public service providers and indeed the private sector.
It seems that there might still be life in the Big Society, even if some of the language has been wrong. But it will take some commitment from the government, as well as citizens, to make it work.