The Big Society spin on the New Year’s Honours

If the turn of the year is a signal of aspirations for the next, then we are left in no doubt that the enthusiasm for voluntarism and community action running through David Cameron’s government is here to stay.

An honours list, being a medley of awards to establishment stalwarts, unsung heroes, industry figures, creatives and performers, requires a fair amount of analysis to determine whether there are any trends in the group of people who receive them. In the government’s own words, “the vast majority of people recognised include those supporting the Big Society by making a real difference to their local community through volunteering, fundraising, social action and philanthropy”.

There is indeed plenty of evidence that people who have made the grade through charities and voluntary work have been blessed appropriately. Save the occasional dinner lady or former Blue Peter presenter, a great many public servants, including medical professionals, teachers, military figures and members of the Royal Household are also on the list. Whether the Cabinet Office had in mind Ronnie Corbett as a poster boy for the Big Society cause or not  (he was awarded a CBE for ‘services to entertainment and charity’) may be a source of gentle amusement. But it is difficult to see whether the 2012 New Years’ Honours list looks that different from any previous roll-call. The Big Society spin on this year’s awards, interpreted to varying degrees in the mainstream media, may just be yet another convenient re-badging of the initiative. After all, few governments of recent times have failed to recognise the efforts of those in the charitable and voluntary sectors, whether they are leaders or lesser-known foot soldiers of ‘good’ causes.

Another relaunch may well be in vain, undermined by the apparent disorganisation and lack of co-ordination within government. Despite the calls for a Big Society minister, there is apparently no need for one, or an advocating department other than 10 Downing Street itself, so we may as well accept that the awarding of honours is just as political in its intention than any other action of this government. Increasingly, the question must be asked: what is the overall vision at the heart of government for this policy, other than that personally restated by the Prime Minister? Aside from the work undertaken by third sector bodies to interpret the vision in practice, the three page document on the Cabinet Office website detailing government policies that support the Big Society remains the only tangible written evidence of a Big Society policy. Everything else seems to be in the Prime Minister’s head.

If that is the case, then fine. We may never be presented with anything more than a rather anonymous looking PDF. The coming year looks set to witness a further realignment of politics anyway – a strengthened Conservative party buoyed by a newly confident relationship (or not, as the case may be) with the European Union, and an even weaker Ed Miliband. Meanwhile, Labour’s ‘good society’ response has struggled past the conceptual stage, with only vague talk of mutuals and co-operatives bandied around, yet to become a part of Miliband’s broader response to the political status quo.

The real test of the Big Society in 2012 will be Olympic and Paralympic Games in London, giving the voluntary sector enormous strength as it literally delivers the games on a world stage. Volunteers will support many of the activities which will be integral to the Games’ success, in many cases for two week periods at a time. Whether the government can make sufficient political capital out of it is another question, but the Games will, in any case, provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prove that the Big Society can exist on an even bigger scale that it does already.

Paul Prentice is a freelance political journalist and worked for seven years as a communications professional in the voluntary and public sectors.

  • Chris Hornet

    How many potential volunteers have been lost? Most of them I reckon. There were two key time-frames which needed to be capitalised upon: the buzz around the opening up of volunteering opportunities and the games-time (and its immediate aftermath) itself. Both of those have been lost.

    Looking on from the outside it would be easy to say that the volunteering sector failed to get its act together. But there were many, including VE, telling LOCOG and Govt what needed to happen. The simple reason for why it didn’t happen I guess is a very practical one. The priority was to make sure the Olympics happened and to make sure that 70,000 volunteers were recruited, trained and managed to perform their roles (no mean feat). I think a little more honesty would have been nice about what was achievable so that expectations could have been managed better.

    I hope we’re not going to get thousands of people being bombarded with messages about their ‘interest’ in volunteering, when they’ve probably forgotten they’d registered to volunteer at the Olympics

  • John Barnes

    I agree its the chief exec / Finance director/ senior staff who should take the blame/. pay the costs – it is their management of the organisation that has failed through their failure to get funds and keep the board of trustees informed of the financial issues.

    It the senior management that get the rewards/glory when things go well so they should get the blame/pay the costs when through their actions things go badly

  • S B

    As a senior manager running an organization it would be nice to think I get the rewards and glory when things go well but that is not my experience. I am expected to ensure things go well, that is what I am paid for. There is no additional reward or even most often, acknowledgement, when it does. However I do agree that it is imperative that senior managers keep their boards informed, that is their responsibility. By the same token it is the boards responsibility to understands their duties as trustees and take those seriously, asking the right questions, managing the lead manager properly so that they fully understand what is happening within the organization and demanding relevant information if it is not forthcoming. If they have not done this then it is right that they accept the consequences of not having fulfilled their obligations. Taking things on trust is not part of a trustees job description. It is a difficult job for a trustee and does throw up yet again the question of whether unpaid boards are capable of really providing a strong and relevant governance structure for charities.

  • Jon NORTH

    Sounds a good plan John. Good to see a glimpse again of your common sense, which always made my working life more sane! Say all you want about the legal responsibilities of Trustees, but the dice are always loaded against them if they are not well-informed by the people they amploy and … trust to keep them in the picture.

  • Lauren Scott

    Interesting article John. But there seems to be the suggestion that the senior management were at fault for not informing the board of the issues. But I suppose it could equally be the case that the information was provided but that the trustees did not take proper notice of it, or deal with the issues appropriately. Either way, it looks messy and is one of the reasons why we usually always advise clients intending to set up new charities to use an incorporated vehicle (and to make sure that the trustees fully understand their duties and responsibilities). Incidentally, I’m not convinced that the trustees who have resigned will necessarily be off the hook in terms of liability, so it might be worth the organisation/its trustees seeking legal advice on this and their position more generally.

  • Michael Levitt

    If a charity employs staff or has other significant risks, then it is well advised to incorporate and take advantage of limited liability. This has been the advice for years. It is hard to understand what type of trustee cannot know about the financial collapse of a charity until it happens. Does he not ask for regular management accounts? Does he (or she) not do anything to find out what are his duties? Does he not realise he and his fellow trustees are running the show, not his employees? Come on, these types of trustee should take responsibility and not just view their position as some sort of gong.

  • Paul Griffiths

    There is a lesson here for anyone who signs up to be a Trustee of a charity. I would highly recommend reading ‘The Essential Trustee’ ( http://www.charitycommission.gov.uk/publications/cc3.aspx#i1 ) .

    As I understand it, it would be the Trustees who would be liable in the first instance for the debts of the charity and they would be well advised to contact the Charity Commission for advice on their position.

    If it transpires that senior staff of the charity acted in an inappropriate and illegal manner the Trustees in turn might be in a position to recover their losses from those former staff.
    And, certainly if it was the case that staff acted illegally, by not providing Trustees with full and proper disclosure of the financial situation of the charity, this should be in the public domain so that these people are not put into position of trust again, where they might repeat their behaviour.