Martyn Lewis's speech to the NCVO Christmas Reception 2010
Each political party has a vision for how it wants to change – to reshape – society when in government. The NCVO wants to work with you in achieving your vision in a way that is in the best interest of our members. But it can, at times, be a delicate tightrope to walk – and it is usually at its most delicate in the early days of a new government when some policies are still evolving – are not fully formed. When we have The What – but not necessarily all the details of The How.
The Big Society is clearly just such an evolutionary process. It involves a change of emphasis and priorities – and obviously there are discussions still going on within government as to the pace, nature and some of the destinations of the journey being undertaken. Not all the pieces of the jigsaw are yet in place, and I suspect it is taking longer to build than originally planned. So, in driving the process forward, the government is on the one hand engaging with the voluntary sector, but, on the other, sometimes showing a combination of delay and inflexibility that makes it difficult for many of our members to judge the size and shape of their future accurately. Some are suffering quite severe cuts; others know there WILL be cuts but not whether or to what extent they will be affected; while still more are finding it difficult to engage with the local councils who will decide whether and to what extent voluntary groups will be part of the new world being created.
Some are assuming the worst – indeed, responsible trusteeship demands that they do that – so substantial cutbacks in staffing have begun – the NYA, Volunteering England, the NCVO itself - national organisations that have traditionally delivered key parts of the support mechanism that many smaller, grassroots groups rely on. But the continuing uncertainty reaches down to those smaller groupings as well – organisations that consider themselves at the heart of The Big Society, are keen to be part of it, but face uncertainty or delay at local council level on decisions that affect all their futures. In short, many of us in the voluntary sector find ourselves in a kind of prolonged limbo-land. It is only now, six months after the election, that local authorities have been given their new budgets – so there are clearly still several weeks if not months of negotiations ahead before many voluntary organisations find out whether they are part of the New World order or excluded from it.
So I am speaking as 'Puzzled of Kings Cross' (the location, in case you should misinterpret that, of my new NCVO home) I want desperately to understand in a rounded way what is happening and why. How a government that was so meticulous and fast in producing and implementing plans aimed at sorting out the country’s dire financial state, has not yet mirrored that clarity, focus and speed of decision-making for The Big Society. Yes, there is a lot going on – yesterday’s announcement providing more detail about how power will be devolved to communities, for example.
And we in the NCVO have tried to play our part – to provide a strong voice on behalf of our 8,300 member organisations. Only last week our Funding Commission produced one of the clearest and most comprehensive documents I have ever seen – Funding the Future – with 12 substantive recommendations that would really tackle the issues I have outlined – and more. But what we are anxiously waiting for is for all the government pieces to drop into position – not so much The Big Society as The Big Picture.
This place - the Mother of Parliaments - is rightly held up around the world as the model for democracy. But I would submit that our country has something special that is even more democratic – it is ordinary folk, in communities, identifying issues and problems that affect their everyday lives, and coming together – rounding up friends and like-minded people – to tackle those issues and problems. They have been there for generations. Through their actions they demonstrate the purest form of democracy on a regular daily basis. And they are the people that we in the NCVO try our best to represent.
They are also, as I understand it, the people whom the Big Society wants to empower. We’re both on the same page here. The issue for what is undoubtedly an important transition in emphasis is, as I said, not WHAT but HOW.
One final point - I am optimistic enough to believe that, in due course, The Big Society WILL deliver that Big Picture. When it does, I hope the media will want to play a much bigger role than in the past.
I was struck by the fact that a few days ago, when Downing Street announced the creation of The Big Society Awards, there was hardly any national media coverage and nothing on national television news. When a second award was handed out a few days later only one national newspaper reported that. Nothing surprising there, perhaps. Over the last 8 years, the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service and the Beacon Awards have honoured over a thousand individuals or organisations delivering great ideas and exceptional achievements. Local coverage has usually be good ; national coverage virtually non-existent. How are we going to build the Big Society if the trailblazers in volunteering and social enterprise continue to be largely ignored by the national media as they have been in the past? Well here’s a suggestion which I hope all of you will relentlessly put to journalists you happen to meet or know:
Why not try to incorporate somewhere in every negative story just a few lines on what some individuals or organisations are doing to tackle the problem that has given you that negative headline? It won’t be appropriate for every story, but journalists should at least be challenged to make the search for such antidotes part of their natural professional behaviour and instincts.
A drugs bust in Brixton might include coverage of an organisation that is working in that area to try to combat the drugs problem. Reporting of crimes committed by young people might include details of the work of one of the many organisations working to rehabilitate deeply deprived and disadvantaged youngsters in all kinds of interesting ways.
It is potentially a win-win situation. Editors and proprietors still get the negative stories and headlines which they judge to be essential for maximising audiences – while the reader or viewer is not left with a feeling that the world is going down the plughole.
And, of course, you know where those positive angles would come from – they would come overwhelmingly from YOU – from a voluntary sector that is rich in ideas and actions for solving society’s problems – as you will hear from one of our members, SE1 United, in a few minutes' time.
The South African writer Philip Adam said:
"The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths to it are made, not found; and the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destinations."
Nick – I am encouraged by the pledge of partnership with Civil Society organisations that is at the heart of the new Compact (which we are about to hear more about), and as we create and shape the future of volunteering together, I’d like to think that neither the government nor the voluntary sector are too resistant to persuasive arguments for tweaking or altering the course of that change.
My plea is that you help us walk or run rather more briskly along the chosen path – and that, when we get to our shared destination, the same media already reporting the problems along the way will devote rather more coverage to the successes when we get there.
[delivered Tuesday 14 December 2010]