The prime minister's Big Society was supposed to be the key initiative that would bring together every policy area within the Conservative Manifesto. It was an underpinning philosophy that could be used to rebuild communities, allow for the reshaping of various public services, and above all demonstrate that the Tories were able to be compassionate.
This was planned to be the legacy of David Cameron's premiership, and would make Britain a better place. But it is easy for everyone to see that from the time this 'Big Idea' was launched to the public it hasn't managed to capture the imagination of the masses. The recent revelation that one of the first Big Society Ambassadors has had to close down his charity will no doubt further harm its already tarnished brand.
Shaun Bailey was the talented and outspoken community leader that the Conservatives managed to sign up to represent a section of Britain that they continue to struggle to engage. Shaun is the founder of the now extinct charity, My Generation. He is black, from a working class background, and passionate about dealing with the issues that affect the most marginalised people within communities. Following Bailey's unsuccessful election campaign in 2010, David Cameron rewarded his loyalty and hard work by giving him the title of being one of his 'Big Society Ambassadors. Unfortunately he has since had to close down his charity which he set up to help young people within poor areas.
The mission of My Generation is completely in line with what the Big Society stands for, but this sad loss to communities within Hammersmith may actually be the most important thing that Shaun Bailey does as a former Big Society Ambassador. In having to close down his own charity, Shaun has demonstrated to the government and to those with similar organisations that he indeed understands and shares similar challenges to most voluntary groups in the UK today.
There is no doubt that funding for community groups has arguably always been the key challenge that they face when delivering much needed support to their service users. However, we are in an economic crisis where funding is increasingly smaller and harder to come across. During the Labour years we saw money being given out in larger proportions through local and national government schemes, as well as a larger availability of grants. But in recent times funding for things like Children and Young People Services has been close to being wiped out by local council's as they have no statutory obligation to deliver such activities. Other lifelines like the Future Jobs Fund have been scrapped, which has meant that many voluntary sector organisations can no longer benefit from the use of extra staff that is funded by the government. So the voluntary sector faces big challenges going forward and the long term survival of many of these organisations is something that simply cannot be guaranteed. Some would view this all as a major tragedy, but I see this more as an opportunity to create a solution that is fit for purpose. Like a game of chess, with the opponent thinking the game is almost over, the Big Society may yet still have one more move.
The government must now look at ways of reshaping the voluntary sector to ensure that it allows people that are passionate about society not to be lost because of economic difficulty. They should set up Big Society Academies that train up community leaders and gives them the skills to identify and engage with the funding areas that still exist, as well as other key skills. This training should be delivered by corporate partners on a pro bono basis. Many community leaders do not have the in-depth knowledge of how to effectively run a going concern and are simply people that care for their communities. There passion must be harnessed and supported with training and support from experts from various fields. I can certainly envision major corporations donating their time for free to train large groups of voluntary sector staff and volunteers. Although some are already doing this, the scale must be increased. This would no doubt be something that helps to enhance their brand from a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) perspective.
There are a number of different activities that local and national governments still fund, but to be able to receive any money will require many organisations to become a bit more entrepreneurial. Things like the National Citizen Service gives out funding of over £1000 for every young person that engages with the scheme. This is a lot of money, but at the moment only very large organisations like the Princes Trust and V-Inspired seem to be winning such contracts. So a major issue is how smaller voluntary groups can participate in the delivery of such schemes in larger proportions. There are a few success stories of this happening, but not nearly as much as would be needed to demonstrate success in line with Big Society aspirations.
Voluntary groups will need to partner with larger organisations if they simply do not have the capacity to survive by themselves, and others will have to seriously consider the possibility of merging. The government must do its part in revolutionising the voluntary sector without taking it over. They should eventually make a fund available for community groups with fewer strings attached and less beaurocracy in the application stage. Cameron must also find a way for people that are involved in the voluntary sector to secure paid work. It must be said that Shaun Bailey's role as an ambassador was unpaid and he therefore represented many community leaders that are doing the work that most people believe they are too busy to do, and is sacrificing his own time without being fairly remunerated. There must also be targeted funding available for communities to create solutions where there are gaps in public services due to the limited funding available at this current time.
The Big Society still has the potential to empower us all to further engage with our own communities. But this will only happen when the government supports those that have been doing Big Society things way before it was a Big Idea. The voluntary sector must not be lost whilst other people with no passion for their communities continue to be given a stay of economic execution. More support is needed, more engagement is essential, and more of a collective strategy must be announced if we are to avoid too many more stories like Shaun Bailey's My Generation.
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