Editorial: Ministerial boost for the big society

A new cross-departmental committee of ministers should help Whitehall become more sector-friendly, says Stephen Cook

In many policy areas, the opposing political parties kicked lumps out of each other during the election campaign.

The same wasn't quite true in the voluntary sector: there were significant differences, yes - but as the protagonists themselves admitted from time to time, there was considerable common ground. One of these was the desire to spread sector-friendly policies across Whitehall, not least in the sphere of fair access to service delivery contracts.

Under Labour, most departments were required to come up with policies about their relationships with charities and voluntary organisations. That was progress. These policies might occasionally have been wishy-washy or pronounced through gritted teeth, since there can be a certain rigid, silo mentality among senior officials. But some groundwork was done, and it is welcome to see those foundations now being built on rather than pushed over by the coalition government.

The evidence of this is the establishment of a ministerial committee of at least 10 junior ministers from different departments, charged with taking forward the big society agenda, which is, to all intents and purposes, a voluntary sector agenda. Before this initiative, ministerial collaboration in this area had been piecemeal, ad hoc and therefore vulnerable to ambush by established sectional interests. It would be even better to have the secretaries of state involved in the new committee, but you can't have everything.

The collective mind of the committee should be focused by the continuing message from the Prime Minister that the big society, nebulous and unspecific as it is in many ways, will be the litmus test of this government. It is up to them to interpet it and give it life. It is also up to the sector to get involved and supply some analysis and ideas. The essence of the voluntary sector has always been to do things without the state. With the state about to become smaller, there are many opportunties as well as the obvious disbenefits.

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