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Building the Big Society from the bottom up

October 25, 2010

Sarah Smith


In one sense, George Osborne said very little about the Big Society in his speech last week. He mentioned it only once, near the beginning when he announced that there would be “additional allocations to support the Big Society, establish community organisers and launch the pilots for the National Citizen Service”. Yet in his many ways, his speech spoke volumes about the Conservative’s Big Society vision.

A key part of the Big Society is involving not-for-profit organisations in the delivery of public services. This is something that the previous Labour government was also keen on. But if the Labour government had a vision, it was of a “top down” Big Society; i.e. government funding for not-for-profits providing public services through grants and contracts. This led to a big increase in the amount of income that charities received from the government, up 128% since 2000/01 and an expansion in the sector – from 120,000 charities in 1994/95 to 171,000 in 2007.[1]

Even before the public spending cuts, some Conservatives rejected this top-down approach. Ian Duncan-Smith criticized what he called the “Big charity, Big government” duopoly. Contract funding, he argued, favoured big charities, although the evidence shows that large charities have not become any more dominant over the period since 1997. He also argued that it threatened to erode the very thing that gave not-for-profit organisations their edge – their “mission”.

And now much of this government funding is under threat. The Government has allocated £100m to a transition fund to help voluntary and community sector organisations deal with the changes as part of the CSR – but this is dwarfed by the size of the cuts – an estimated £5 billion according to the Charity Commission. New Philanthropy Capital have predicted that community development, financial exclusion, and parenting work charities will be particularly hard hit.

Instead, the coalition’s vision is for a Big Society that comes from the bottom up. To replace contract funding, Ian Duncan Smith called for more volunteers with “fire in their bellies” and more stakeholder-led funding: more genuinely voluntary activity from the voluntary sector. But can this really deliver?

It rests on the belief that “bottom up” is better than “top down” as a way of involving not-for-profit organisations and ensuring public services that meet local needs most efficiently and effectively. Individual donors and volunteers have local knowledge, they have commitment and vision and they can personally derive enormous benefits from engaging with local not-for-profit organisations. But there are also risks: that the geographic and service spread of bottom-up services may be patchy and un-coordinated, that pure voluntary funding may be unreliable compared to government money, and that it may come with ideological strings attached. These risks are particularly great at a time when demand for services is likely to increase following cuts announced in the comprehensive spending review to housing benefit, disability benefit and support for families with children.

The bottom up approach is a big leap of faith. Not least, the belief that there is a lot of untapped volunteerism. One of the few economic studies to look at volunteering by Richard Freeman found that a key factor in explaining whether or not people volunteered was whether they had been asked.[2] Perhaps that is all that it takes. But much of the evidence suggests that “pro-social” behaviour is fairly concentrated. In particular, public sector and not-for-profit workers – who tend to do more unpaid overtime (“donated labour”) in their jobs than private sector workers – also typically volunteer more. In the British Household Panel Survey, 35 per cent of people working for not-for-profit organisations said they volunteered regularly compared to 21 per cent of public-sector workers and 12 per cent of private sector workers. So, perhaps the one great hope for the Big Society is that many of these public sector and not-for-profit workers will soon find themselves with much more time on their hands.


[1] Figures from the NCVO (www.ncvo-vol.org.uk)

[2] “Working for nothing – the supply of volunteer labor”, Journal of Labor Economics 1997, vol 15, pp. S140-166.


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