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December 8, 2010

SCVO on Big Society

Its official. Big Society has been crowned Word of the Year by the Oxford Dictionaries  (two words actually but who’s counting – vuvuzela came a hard fought second). Officially Scottish Government doesn’t pay much attention to this Westminster policy but most people have had a go trying to work out what it could mean for this country. Martin Sime at SCVO shared his thoughts on Big Society recently with a gathering of Community Development Alliance Scotland

Martin Sime, Director of SCVO gave a presentation

‘Small State, Big Society’, interestingly, was a Chinese Government slogan in the 1990s. The ‘Big Society’ is currently something of an obsession in London, and has created an industry.

The theory as set out by Conservative spokespeople includes several aspects:

• Increased social responsibility by individuals and families (with the state ‘nudging’ people in this direction)

• Localism, including community empowerment

• Mobilising the ‘little platoons’ of civil society

• Increased activity by the third sector and wider aspects of civil society

• A smaller state

• The right to know and to access data.

In England national voluntary organisations are being told that this is not about their role, indeed there are significant cuts to the voluntary sector infrastructure.

Planned initiatives include:

• Training of new ‘community organisers’, who will then have to raise their own salaries

• A national programme offering three weeks National Citizen Service for young people.

• A Big Society Day

Already happening are a number of small local pilot projects, a Big Society Bank ( a repositioning of the ‘dormant bank accounts’ fund) and policies such as self-governing schools.

Other context includes:

• the ongoing marketisation of services such as the Work Programme, and the emphasis on job seekers volunteering (with no additional support other than a Job Centre advisor telling them to do so)

• the English White Paper on Care, which is perhaps the most radical initiative, with its emphasis on ‘self-directed support’, very similar to the current Scottish strategy.

In Scotland, after some initial debate, most of the major organisations backed off quickly, sensing no appetite for such a debate and an identification of it with the ‘cuts’ agenda. Even Tory MSPs say that the programme does not apply in Scotland, though it is a little known fact that the official list of Secretary of State for Scotland David Mundell’s responsibilities is to advance the Big Society in Scotland.

SCVO feels some empathy with the ideas underlying the ‘big society’, but cutting or rolling back the state is not part of their agenda.

However a set of ideas about people tasking more responsibility are a necessity. Current levels of care will break the NHS and swallow our entire economy in a few years, if people cannot be enabled to live in the community instead. It is crucial to build community capacity and networks in order to combat social isolation. Older people are a huge resource.

The ‘big platoons’ of the voluntary sector are entirely involved in a commissioning and contracting culture. But the government needs a new culture of nurturing the sector at community level. Care for older people is an ideal arena to develop this.

However is it really the government’s role to say ‘we will have a big society’ (though that is no doubt how the Chinese Government sees it)?


Comments from participants:

Community development has always been based on the argument that current public service delivery models were not sustainable. So how should we respond to this new agenda?

There are difficulties with the source of the ‘big society’ agenda. How will the influences behind it play out in Scotland? We need to find our own language for this.

Volunteering doesn’t happen because governments make it happen. Successful initiatives start with support to one or two people, breaking down social isolation. Where is the practical action to support these sources of community action?

Who can help to shape a new approach? There are many in the civil service who are sceptical about community development, and some about the value of the third sector in general. By contrast, MSPs of all parties want to see some of this agenda supported, but also face a strong demand for priority to be given to protecting ‘acute’ services.


There have been 30 years of debates on community-led regeneration, which often amounts to asking people to engage in other people’s agendas. People have to be given their own resources. The self-directed care approach shifts the centre of gravity and requires more neighbour-based solutions.

Comments from participants:

How can we make some of the changes that are happening more systematic? Can we replicate the ‘individual choice’ approach at community level?

Communities have used resources well when given the chance. But this can lead to the development of structures that are not democratically accountable.

Resources and support for communities has often been a response to failing state intervention … No, it has mostly been required in response to the failure of the private sector.

What change agenda is needed to enable people to use their individual resources to achieve collective solutions?

At the heart of our ever growing care system is a broken philosophy – interventions that disempower people and weaken their ability to cope.

This is not about alternative forms of service delivery, but about doing things differently – strengthening individuals and communities.


Local government should not have a ‘duty to care’ but a duty to support citizens to look after themselves.

The Change Fund  for community-based health and social care services for older people, announced in the draft budget, could be significant. The Minister has insisted that the reshaping of services involved must involve the third sector, and there is a strand in the programme described as ‘community capacity building’.