The voluntary sector has viewed the government’s big society agenda with scepticism and distrust, but also as an opportunity to engage with government, according to a new report by the Third Sector Research Centre.
The report, Making Sense of the Big Society by Rob Macmillan, a TSRC research fellow at the University of Birmingham, is based on evidence drawn from Real Times, a study over four years of 15 voluntary organisations, community groups and social enterprises, led by Macmillan.
It says that third sector workers described the agenda as "confusing", "challenged by the reality of everyday life" and "an illegitimate co-option of a range of positive community and voluntary activities for political purposes".
The report suggests there might be "an almost automatic suspicion among voluntary and community organisations of the agendas of statutory authorities", which leads to them to distrust government initiatives.
"It would not be surprising then, in this context, that the big society, despite its overtures to the third sector, is likely to sound grand, other-worldly, and almost incomprehensible in the day-to-day reality of third sector life," the report says.
It says that in 51 interviews in which the topic of the big society arose, the only "unequivocally positive" responses were from those who saw it as likely to generate funding opportunities for their organisations.
"Politicians and policy-makers are often encouraged and exhorted to set out clear visions for the direction of society," the report says. "Perhaps the lesson from this research and the experience of the big society is that they should tread carefully in this endeavour.
"They might be wise to spend time developing ideas and narratives in ways which make sense in everyday life and at the front line.
"If stories fail to offer compelling, resonant and realistic scenarios, they are in danger of being derided, dismissed or ignored."
In response, Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, said: "If some people want to continue agonising over definition, that is fine. If some voluntary organisations want to express their frustration with government, that is fine too. We think it is more productive to work with more positive elements in the sector who see the opportunities that are being opened up by government.
"It takes a pretty jaundiced sceptic not to recognise the activity that is going on to encourage more giving, volunteering and social investment."