23 May 2010

What's the big idea?

This weekend I joined Dave's "Big Society". Not Cameron, but a different Dave. And a different "Big Society" come to think of it. I spent 24 hours or so as a parent volunteer at a camp for my local Scout Association and the various junior sections in deepest, darkest Essex.

Just so you don't think that the Conservatives "Big Society" thing was a bit of election puff, it is still very much alive. From a link on the Home page of conservatives.com you can read all about the new spirit of community evangelisation, though it has been diplomatically rebranded as Civil Society, in deference to their government bedfellows, the Liberal Democrats. Speaking at its launch as a government policy last week, the Other Dave described it thus: "...we know instinctively that the state is often too inhuman, monolithic and clumsy to tackle our deepest social problems. We know that the best ideas come from the ground up, not the top down".

Leaving aside the false opposition of exactly which direction of travel the best ideas take, the programme itself wants to get local people organising locally, and in true Tory fashion engages in supply-side economics to tackle this: training an army of Community Organisers to raise the Dunkirk spirit, paid for from the money found down the back of everyone's sofa (I'm paraphrasing here, but not much). It here goes for what it sees as the crux of the matter: the money. And of course, it's true - paying for things is very important, in order to encourage people to build local projects and organisations. But nowhere in any of the 16 pages of "Big Society not Big Government" does it tackle one of the biggest barriers to participation.

Returning to Dave our local Scoutmaster, on Friday he shopped for the entire camp of some 36 people and to get to site early to start to set up the tents, assess the infrastructure and conduct risk-assessments on the proposed activities. Once flag was down on Sunday lunchtime, he supervised the dismantling of the camp and returned the Troop's gear to the lockup and the van to the rental office. To say nothing of the organising, arranging payment, raising the money to subsidise the event and the week-in, week-out running of the various beaver, cub and scout get-togethers.

Dave's employers tried to pressure him into working a weekend shift, despite the fact he had taken Friday as annual leave. Between his work and the Scout movement, there's little room for other things, but Dave does it willingly and happily because he believes he is doing something worthwhile, and a thriving body of local children back this by voting with their feet every Monday. Dave is one of thousands of people who put their careers on hold, or have to juggle their work commitments for, essentially, the benefit of other people's children. He doesn't get paid, and nor does he seek to. But here's where Big Government could come in.

Dave doesn't need the Big Society Bank to sell Social Impact Bonds (no, really) to buy another tent, or even cover the van hire. But if his employers could leverage the social value of Dave's volunteer work somehow, so they could benefit from his largess, they might see Dave's hinterland life as a benefit to them, and Dave as a valued employer. Will the Other Dave, in Downing Street, enact legislation to free potential community activists by helping them to hold down work and take some time for the common wheel? Probably sounds a bit too much like top-down, red tape to Dave's mates in the business community.

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