What does the Big Society Audit say about Britain’s charities?Posted: December 10, 2013
Earlier this week Civil Exchange published the Big Society Audit 2013, investigating how the Government’s flagship idea for civil society has operated in practice. Shortly before the 2010 General Election David Cameron, standing in the shadows of Battersea power station, launched his Big Society plan which, he argued, would give power to people across the nation.
Over the past three years attitudes towards the Big Society have remained mixed, with polling carried out for the Independent in 2011 finding that a quarter of people (27%) had never heard of the Big Society, 41% agreeing that it is merely a cover for spending cuts, and only 17% believing that it will succeed in fostering a culture of volunteering. Half of people asked said that they thought to Big Society to be largely a gimmick.
Civil Exchange’s new Audit splits the Big Society into three distinct parts, and examines the success that the Government has had in putting their rhetoric into practical action.
Looking at the area of community empowerment, the Audit found that there have been significant successes in increasing local control by encouraging communities to take over local assets and services; that there has been an improvement in transparency and an increase in the number of elected officials; and that strong communities remain a positive feature of British life, although one that varies between affluent and disadvantaged areas.
There is, however, no real change in individual influence over local decisions, with only a minority believing that they are actually in a position to shift opinions locally. In addition, recognising traits highlighted by the Back Britain’s Charities campaign, the Audit acknowledge that many voluntary sector organisations are experiencing financial difficulty due to rising demand and falling income.
Turning to social indications, the Audit found that there has been a dramatic fall in giving, echoing the findings of the UK Giving 2012 report, which found a 20% drop in donations to charities. More positively, levels of volunteering have risen, although only to the levels that existed before the financial crisis. There has been an increase in volunteering by young people, an area that the Parliamentary Inquiry on Growing Giving has been looking into in more detail.
Looking at the impact of the Big Society reforms on public services, the picture is bleaker. Cuts to voluntary sector funding have already taken place, with dramatic falls estimated over the next four years that will threaten organisations working to support vulnerable people. This reduction in spending is interesting, particularly in light of research carried out for the Back Britain’s Charities campaign which found that 69% of people believe that their community will suffer if charity funding is reduced.
The report also warned that despite attempts to open up public service contracts to a wider audience, contracts are still large inaccessible to the voluntary sector. There is instead a systematic bias towards the private sector existing in contracting. There are many underlying challenges for voluntary organisations to deal with when competing with large companies for contracts, and CAF’s “Funding Good Outcomes” paper has urged the Government to reflect on how bidding processes can be adapted to ensure that charities and voluntary organisations are able to compete on an equal footing.
The Audit is well worth reading in full, and is an incredibly useful exercise in helping to inform people about what the Big Society means in reality for charities. Whilst there are some positives, charities and voluntary sector organisations are yet to reap the rewards of the rhetoric, and, as the Back Britain’s Charities campaign makes clear, there is still much work that needs to be done to support the thousands of charities across Britain that are struggling. What do you think of the Big Society Audit 2013? Let us know @backingcharity and email@example.com