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Policy-makers 'don't understand community organisations'

Third Sector Research Centre report says 'below the radar' activity could be a crucial part of the big society

Angus McCabe, author of the report
Angus McCabe, author of the report

Policy-makers need a better understanding of how community organisations work if they are to become involved in delivering the government’s big society agenda, according to a report by the Third Sector Research Centre.

In Below the Radar in a Big Society?, academics assess the role that about 600,000 small community groups could play in delivering the big society agenda.

The paper refers to this charitable activity, made up of groups either not registered with the Charity Commission or lacking a regular, substantial income, as "below the radar".

It says people usually become involved in community action for personal reasons rather than from a sense of civic duty.

"What motivates grass-roots, informal and semi-formal community activity is little understood in policy circles and exhortations that communities should ‘make it so’ in building a political reality of big society may therefore be unlikely to succeed," it says.

It also questions whether people will be willing to become involved in volunteering and policy decisions.

It quotes research that shows volunteering levels have declined over recent years. For example, figures from the Communities and Local Government department show that the proportion of people who volunteered in England fell between 2005 and 2010.

"David Cameron has said that the Conservative manifesto was ‘an invitation to join the government of Britain’. The statistics question whether there may be enough willing to do so," the report says.

Angus McCabe, author of the report the diversity of ‘below the radar’ activity meant it could be argued that we already had a big society. He said the question was whether the government could engage with this activity.

"A lot will depend on whether the big society agenda can become a bottom-up process with communities in control, rather than be seen as a top-down directive linked to cuts in public services," he said.

"If policies are to achieve equality and fairness, they need to be informed by a systematic analysis of power relations and the role of the state."

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