Wally Harbert: Why the major players in the sector resent the big society

It wasn't launched jointly with them and the government is trying to address a weakness in society that they have ignored, says our guest online columnist

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert

In January, the Third Sector Research Centre published its latest research findings about the big society in a report called Making Sense of the Big Society.

The level of cynicism among senior staff in the third sector that this research uncovers is breathtaking. This must affect their day-to-day work and be apparent to their colleagues at all levels. 

Not far below the surface there appears to be a feeling of entitlement – that if I work hard to set up or take control of an organisation for the social good, I have a legitimate grouse against a government that fails to assist me. This is a relatively recent phenomenon that doubtless arises because the third sector has come to rely heavily on government funding.

That only two out of 51 responses are positive about the big society concept shows the depth of the problem, which is exacerbated by the public pronouncements of some leaders in the sector. Unless this prevailing attitude is overcome, we shall have a demoralised and dysfunctional third sector. Who is going to take responsibility for turning this around, and how is this going to be done?

It is not always clear whether respondents agree with the basic principles underlying the big society because their comments are overshadowed by the effect of expenditure cuts. But if the big society is valid, it applies just as much in times of cuts as in times of growth. 

Many respondents see the big society as a means to secure government funding, but nothing in the findings suggests that they have considered how their organisations might need to change to devolve decision-making to staff, volunteers or communities.

Nowhere in government literature have I read that the government wants the big society and voluntary organisations to do everything. Only a member of staff who feels threatened by change would say such a thing. The big society is not about passing power to apparatchiks in philanthropic organisations; it is about empowering communities, something that philanthropic bodies have been signally bad at doing. 

Much of the cynicism and antagonism is likely to have arisen because the big society was not launched jointly with major third sector players. Consequently, they have no sense of ownership or a stake in it. They resent the fact that the government is addressing a weakness in society that they have largely ignored.

Overwhelmingly, interviewees have used the opportunity to contribute to an important policy debate by metaphorically crying on the shoulder of a researcher. Whatever any of us think of government policy, there are ways of making our views known and of protesting without abandoning our professionalism. As President Truman put it, "if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen".

Wally Harbert has held senior positions in the voluntary sector and is a former president of the Association of Directors of Social Services. His book Baby Boomers and the Big Society was published in March 2012 by Grosvenor House Publishing

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