The Big Society offered the idea of replacing the bureaucratic monoliths of the private and public sectors with a variety of small voluntary and community groups. As a fan of Fritz Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, it’s an idea that appeals to me ; however I have to ask is the Big Society suffocating the very dynamism of the voluntary and community organisations, and getting them to emulate the bureaucracy of the big private and public organisations.
With the exception of some farsighted individuals, when councillors, civil servants and council officers come across small voluntary and community organisations, they are horrified. They see weak management, weak finance, accountability and evaluation. They see constant turnover of staff and volunteers, weak balance sheets and the lack of codified practice. They rush to “increase capacity” of voluntary and community organisations “to deal with this contractual environment”, in other words they seek to make them in the image of private or public organisations.
Huge, national, regional or county contracts, mean that the only non-public organisations able to bid are the big, profit-driven companies and not the smaller, more innovative voluntary and community organisations that could make the real breakthroughs. Many big companies win these huge contracts, only to subcontract the frontline work to smaller voluntary and community organisations, tying them in to rigid contracts. Thus pushing the risk down the food chain and keeping the profits at the top.
A ‘consortium’, which brings small organisations together in a joint venture, can challenge the big boys. However the result can be endless infighting and multiple rigid controls and reporting procedures.
We shouldn’t be changing voluntary and community organization to fit the contractual environment, we should be changing the contracts to fit the voluntary and community sector.