Half of volunteers have negative opinions on big society, research indicates

The initial findings from a Third Sector Research Centre report suggest there is a lack of understanding about the concept, says Rose Lindsey, one of the authors

Volunteers: concept of 'big society' can be hazy
Volunteers: concept of 'big society' can be hazy

There is a lack of understanding of the government’s big society concept among volunteers, new research suggests.

Initial findings from a study by the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Southampton say that half of 62 people who identified themselves as volunteers expressed negative views about the big society agenda. Eight approved of it and the rest expressed no opinion.

The responses were part of a "mass observation study", in which participants give freeform written responses to questions on various subjects.

A report on the responses from half of the 200 people who took part will be discussed today at the British Sociological Association's annual conference in London.

Rose Lindsey, one of the authors of the report, told Third Sector that participants were asked, among other things, what they thought the big society was, whether it was new and whether they thought it was a good idea.

"One of the issues that came out is the lack of understanding of what the big society is and the laws that go with it," she said. "Some volunteers were aware of the Localism Act and were hopeful at the suggestion that communities might be able to meet their own needs. However, many were hazy on the subject.

"This seems to suggest that, although people have heard the rhetoric about the big society, there is less understanding of how it is being embodied in legislation."

One participant said that the big society concept "seems to be a throwback to the way things were (or were said to be) during the war – the ‘we’re all in this together’ mentality, the idea that everyone will pull together for the common good".

One 68-year-old male respondent wrote: "Cameron’s big idea was small-minded in failing to acknowledge, and support financially, the enormous amount of voluntary work already being provided in, by and for communities across the country."

The report says that an Ipsos Mori poll taken in 2010 showed that 57 per cent of people had not heard of the big society agenda and, of those who had heard of it, 36 per cent said they "knew very little about it".

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office said: "This very small survey is hard to reconcile with the national Community Life Survey, which showed a big spike in volunteering after six years of decline. It also focuses only on volunteers and ignores the broader agenda of transferring power, opening up public services and growing social investment."

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