A lead item on the news today was comments made in a BBC interview by Dame Elizabeth Hoodless, the outgoing head of the UK’s largest volunteering organisation – CSV (Community Service Volunteers). Dame Elizabeth is supportive of the Big Society concept, but she makes the point that cutting funding to the charity sector at the same time as expecting that sector to assume much greater responsibility is a complete contradiction. Defending the cuts to the charity sector, Government ministers assert that the problem of the charity sector is that it has become ” too dependent on the State” and therefore the solution is to make the State more dependent of the charity sector. It must be something that happens when you get an Eton and Oxbridge education – it becomes possible to identify some form of self-evident logic that makes that assertion make sense. Since I only went to Leicester University, I can’t get beyond seeing it as completely bonkers.
One can’t expect the situation to improve. The left and right hand of Government may not be coordinated, but wait until the left hand decides to outsource the right hand as a series of fingers and thumbs.
What this whole issue throws into very sharp relief (yet again) is that there are two forms of Big Society: the sort of Big Society favoured by Dame Elizabeth and many others in the 3rd sector, which is about collaboration, coordination, consensus and building upwards from identified community needs; and then the form favoured by David Cameron, Francis Maud, Oliver Letwin, Michael Gove et al. which is about pure ideology. In their world the State is bad and must be eradicated, private enterprise and the free market is good and must be allowed to rule. There is no room for common sense, the very practical issues raised by Dame Elizabeth are annoying details that must not be allowed to derail The Project. The whole system must be dismantled so that the Market and Competition and Private Enterprise can swoop in a re-build the new Utopia. This may mean sweeping away the old charities, tainted as they are by the “culture of dependency”, so that sparkly new, enterprise charities can push their blue shoots up from the ashes.
This whole Big Society project – both here in Suffolk and across the country as a whole – is being driven by ideological zeal combined with willful incompetence and contempt for anyone with any real knowledge of community and voluntary organisation. Dame Elizabeth, however, puts it more politely. “It is not easy to collaborate with the visionaries behind the Big Society”, she says, at the end of her interview. Quite.