First ever Big Society Audit warns of the need to bridge the "Big Society gap" and calls for government to work with voluntary sector
Big Society Audit 2012, Civil Exchange, 7 May 2012.
Reviewed by Sean Burke
24.05.2012 Bookmark and Share

The Big Society Audit 2012 is produced by think tank Civil Exchange, with research and communications support from Democratic Audit and DHA [a policy and communications agency], supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation UK.

The concept and themes behind "the Big Society" in the UK have general and cross party interest; Tony Blair's "third way" and Gordon Brown's "civic renewal". However, the term "Big Society" might have to be dropped because of its unpopularity. the Audit reviews what has been happening to empower communities, open up public services and promote social action.

Caroline Slocock Director Civil Exchange said:

"The Audit found a genuine interest in getting involved in local issues and in supporting charities but also a 'Big Society gap' between younger and older people and deprived and affluent communities. For example, far fewer younger people and people in deprived areas think that their neighbourhoods are pulling together to improve it. The Government needs to engage with the voluntary sector as a key partner if it is to bridge this gap. That means forging common goals, ensuring the sector has the right support and giving fair access to Government contracts. It is ironic that a programme to engage communities is being driven from Whitehall."

The Audit identifies a range of "Big Society Gaps", for example:

- Deprived communities compared with affluent communities: just over half of people living in deprived areas say their neighbourhoods pull together to improve it, compared to just under 80% of people living in the most affluent areas;

- Younger and older people: 55% of young people [16-24 years] felt that their neighbourhoods pull together, compared with 73% of older people [over 65 years]. The Audit also found that volunteers are more likely to be middle aged and middle class;

- White and ethnic minority people: Just over half of white people felt that people in their neighbourhood could be trusted, against 27% people from ethnic backgrounds.

The Audit highlights that the Big Society has failed to strengthen the voluntary sector over the last two years and that it will face an estimated £3.3 billion of cuts in public funding up to 2016. This gap is unlikely to be met by additional donations.

The Audit found that small, local voluntary and community organisations struggle to gain Government contracts, and that tendering practices appear to have an implicit bias toward larger organisations, in particular the private sector. For example, the tendering requirements of the government's Work Programme initiative, described as a flagship Big Society programme, have favoured the private sector, which won 90 per cent of prime contracts in 2011.

The report recommends that:

- The Government should develop and deliver clear Big Society goals with key partners, including the voluntary and community sector, for example, around poverty reduction and ensuring equal life chances.

- Opportunities to deliver public services should avoid bias toward the private sector and ensure fair access to the voluntary sector.

- Central and local government should increase their understanding of how the voluntary and community sector works, including through interchange of staff, training and more joint initiatives.

Civil Exchange website:

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