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How dead is the Big Society?

How dead is the Big Society?

James Turner, Associate Director at Rocket Science, looks at what the main parties have to say about the voluntary and community sector.

How dead is the Big Society? My view, and I think the generally shared opinion, was it drew its last breath sometime in 2013 or 2014. A victim, perhaps, of Lynton Crosby’s desire to ‘get the barnacles off the boat’ in the run up to the election and focus solely on the economy. Or maybe a recognition that it simply hadn’t worked. The conclusion of the January 2015 Civil Exchange report, Whose Society? The Final Big Society Audit was blunt: “The Big Society has failed to deliver against its original goals.”

But what’s this on page 45 of the Conservative manifesto (I assume you have read up to p45 by now…)? Helping you build the Big Society – a whole two pages of commitments to volunteering and to the voluntary sector. I admit that it’s not the Big Society-fest that the 2010 manifesto was. But that was an age when we were all in it together. Times have clearly moved on.

The focus of the Conservative commitments are, first, on expanding the National Citizen’s Service, secondly on involving charities in delivering public services (although the Work Programme is held up as an example of this, mmm…). And finally an entitlement for three days of volunteering each year for people working in large companies and the public sector. That last commitment is perhaps particularly to be welcomed. Not least because it has raised the hackles of some traditional Conservative business supporters, worried about its potential cost.

And what of the other parties’ manifestos? Well, I think the first piece of good news is that, as with the Conservative manifesto, there is a surprising amount of space dedicated to the VCS. And there is also a fair degree of consensus. The themes in the Tory manifesto of encouraging social action among young people, involving charities in delivering public services and encouraging volunteering are seen across all the major manifestos.

There are differences in emphasis of course, but both the Conservatives and Labour highlight the Step up to serve campaign. And Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems are all committed to supporting volunteering initiatives.

And in terms of delivering public services, Labour and the Lib Dems make specific pledges on early intervention and prevention – where the VCS often has a key role to play. Labour and the Lib Dems also both propose a replacement for the Work Programme administered at a more local level.

The one area of difference, unsurprisingly, is on the future of the Lobbying Act. This has, of course, complicated life for campaigning charities. Labour promises to repeal the Act (although accepting that it needs some sort of replacement). The Lib Dems say they will consider what to do based on the evidence of Lord Hodgson’s Review. I can’t see mention of the Act in the Conservative manifesto. But it’s safe to assume that having only introduced it last year, it would be set to stay with a Conservative government.

So there you have it: More mention of the VCS than you might expect. A large amount of consensus. But differences in approach. You might be cynical and say that none of it will happen anyway. But apparently that’s not the case – politicians do keep their manifesto promises!

Follow James on Twitter @JamesRocketSci

Where is the next Frank Field or IDS – the future for welfare

Where is the next Frank Field or IDS – the future for welfare

Following New Labour’s 1997 election victory, a former Director of the Child Poverty Action Group, Frank Field, was appointed Minster of Welfare Reform with a brief to “think the unthinkable.”   Thirteen years later, the self-proclaimed “quiet man,” Iain Duncan Smith, having found his voice at the Centre for Social Justice, became Secretary of State for Work and Pensions with a wide-ranging remit to fix a seemingly ineffective and wasteful welfare system.

In the run up to this General Election, there is no sign of anyone of similar profile or stature stepping forward, from either the Left or the Right, to champion welfare reform.  The binary nature of the arguments over the purpose of welfare (e.g. rebranding the deserving and undeserving poor as “strivers” or “shirkers”) has not made for a healthy or productive public debate, to the extent that any incoming government would find it hard to reverse many of the recent reforms and attempts to cap overall welfare spending.

Rocket Science recently talked to a selection of thinkers in the field of welfare reform.  We found a striking degree of consensus, indicative of the crowded nature of the political middle ground, but also of how the Coalition Government has tapped into public opinion which is more inclined to associate welfare with social failure, than a tool of social and economic integration which can soften the harsher effects of a free market.  Asked to identify “the next Frank Field or an IDS” who might offer new political leadership on the role of welfare, our interviewees tended to throw out a few names.  However, they were just as likely to comment on how there was no one obvious assuming the mantle which, given the size and importance of the challenge, gives many (particularly those on the Left) cause for concern. The Fabian Society’s projections to 2030, for example, consider what happens to welfare in a “do nothing (more) scenario”: increasing polarisation in wealth (i.e. a continuation of the current trend); working-age welfare spending continues to decline as a total share of social security spending; increasing pension poverty as pensions fail to keep pace with expectations and inflation and fewer people able to save for a decent retirement.

The challenges of rolling out the recent waves of welfare reforms, including the work-related assessment regime, the Personal Independence Payment and the hugely ambitious system of Universal Credit, seem to have narrowed the focus of political and public debate on issues of implementation rather than the setting out of a new vision for welfare.  Whilst the former have enormous significance, and have understandably preoccupied many in the voluntary and charity sectors, the comparative vacuum in the debate over a sustainable future for the welfare state is also a threat, at a time when pollsters have reported a noticeable weakening in public support for welfare, particularly among the younger generation.

In this context, it is interesting to reflect on the historical narrative of the UK’s welfare state.  It could increasingly appear to have been a relatively short-lived experiment born of the post-War consensus within a far longer history of self-help, community based charity and local poor relief.  Indeed it is possible to detect signs among other recent government policies promoting localism, voluntarism and a Big Society, that we are reverting to the continuity of past history and that the post-War collective settlement was an unusual period of discontinuity.  If this is the extent of what is at stake (and how we choose to provide for people during dependency says a lot about our society) it is more than surprising that there are not more figures emerging to set out a new social vision for Britain.

Contact John for more information.




To review or not to review?

To review or not to review?

Should charities review their organisational strengths?

James Turner, Associate Director at Rocket Science, looks at the pluses and minuses of organisational reviews

“We shouldn’t be reviewing what we do, we should be doing what we do…”

I know this feeling well. Outside of Rocket Science, I am a trustee at a small charity in the North East. The charity does great work helping children and young people in need. And the thought of taking senior staff and trustees away from this frontline work to review our organisational set up doesn’t feel quite right. It’s both a luxury we can’t afford and a diversion from what we should be doing.

However, these thoughts and feelings are all based on the notion that a review is time-consuming. What I can promise you is that it doesn’t have to be that way! A Rocket Science review can be a swift review! To misquote Bruno Mars, don’t believe me, just try it… Any charity or voluntary group can access our free VCS Assist tool on our website. I joined Rocket Science in November 2014 and part of my due diligence (which mainly involved looking through their web-pages…), I gave this tool a go in my role as a trustee.

The first thing that I found out is that, although the tool states that it’s for use by employment and skills VCS organisations, 95% plus of the questions are valuable to any VCS group. In fact, I think that out of over 40 questions, only two are specific to employment and skills groups.

Secondly, I found out that it was indeed quick. The introduction page states that to get the most out of it, you should spend 60-90 minutes completing the survey. However, I feel that is at the top end of the time it takes. Certainly a quick overview can be done in 15-20 minutes.

Most importantly, the results of the survey are valuable. Really valuable. After giving the VCS Assist tool a test run, I felt compelled to talk to the chief exec at the charity where I’m a trustee: “You’ve got to look at this! It’ll help us pinpoint staff development needs for the next year. And it will pinpoint what we are good at and where we know we are not so good.”

This last point is key – I think most people who are heavily involved in a charity, whether as staff or trustees, will have an intuitive but unformed sense of what they are good at. However, a strengths review helps to clarify this sense. You can really see what elements of governance, management, HR, finances and so forth are the issue.

And, finally, there are a couple of points where no review or tool can help you. You are on your own! First, there are two schools of organisational development, destined never to agree. You might be a believer in the Theory of Constraints – in layperson’s terms, you are only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. Or you might believe in strengths-based performance management – making the most of what you are already good at. But either way, an organisational strengths review can help you target the best things to focus on.

Secondly, using a tool like the VCS Assist tool might be enough for your organisation. Or you might want to do something more thorough – involving more staff, comparing views on organisational strengths and working together to draw up an action plan. Of course, either approach is valuable. The key is to ensure that the return on the investment of time remains high with a more thorough approach. And modestly, of course, I’d suggest that Rocket Science can help find that right, more-thorough approach…

And it’s there that I’ll finish. I know only too well that reviewing doesn’t always feel like doing. But with the right sort of review, I strongly feel that you can do much more. And do it much better, too.

You can download the tool here

Follow James on Twitter @JamesRocketSci

A journey from learning to earning – the college years

A journey from learning to earning – the college years

The trouble with laying bare your personal experiences of the education system is that wherever I go people always ask after my son and how he is getting on at college. So here’s an update.

This time last year my son and I were engaged in a battle of wills over how much he could spend on his prom suit, a battle from which we both emerged relatively unscathed from the experience. Although, as I suspected, the suit has since been living a lonely existence crumpled up in the back of his wardrobe amongst last season’s Superdry t-shirts, Abercrombie and Fitch tops and Nike trainers. Unfortunately a year has done little to curb his fascination with fashion labels and his need to look like Joey Essex.

The trouble with being a parent is that your kids really do not want to be the recipients of your wisdom and you have to let them learn from their own mistakes. My son has learnt three important lessons in the past year:

  • Don’t ask your girlfriend to cut your hair with clippers on a number 1 setting unless you want to look like you have just been auditioning for a role in the remake of Full Metal Jacket (Sir yes sir!)
  • When you ‘lend’ something like a ‘tenner’, it means that you are under an obligation to pay it back and should not fly into a strop when the ‘lender’ asks for it, and all the other ‘tenners’ they have ‘lent’ you, back (£180 at last count!).
  • If you don’t want to become disowned and homeless, it is sensible not to incessantly mither your mother to take out a leasing arrangement on a brand new Vauxhall Corsa for your first car. Yes I kid you not! As the proud owner of a 10 year old Austin Marina back in 1984, I was glad enough to have a car, never mind the latest model.

That said I am rather proud of him. You may recall that he was accepted on an electrical engineering course and secured a part-time job at Iceland. I am pleased to report that he has managed to stay at college and hold down his job at the same time, although this has not been without the challenges he has been used to facing.

If you have been watching the wonderful Mr Drew on Channel 4 you will get a good idea about some of the behaviours he displayed at school. Although never excluded (he did come close) when I watch this show I am always reminded about how much his dyslexia frustrated him and how he would disrupt others’ learning. But at the heart of it he wanted to do well, be accepted and praised. Just like the boys in the programme for whom I have great empathy and hope for their future.

Unfortunately my son has had to re-sit his exams a couple of times and recently ‘lost it’ in his practical exam at a point where he would have scored a distinction, but got confused and it went downhill from there. He is predicted to pass his Level 2 later this year, but his thoughts are turning to next September and his need to get a Level 3 and that elusive apprenticeship.

The trouble is with the competition. The other ‘local’ college has cut its Level 3 provision which means that available places where my son is learning will become highly prized as there are only 40 places available. There are 60 students already on their Level 2 programme but funding and experienced tutors are scarce. His biggest concern is that he will miss out because of his test results: his practical work is fine but he crumples in exams and this might exclude him from getting one of these prized places. He has started to look for apprenticeships where he can continue his Level 3, but these are few and far between, with 30 students competing for one vacancy in an employer 20 miles away.

So the learning to earning journey continues, still a bumpy ride and a destination unknown at the moment. A journey many young people are facing.

Till next time.

You can follow me @evaluationista to get tips and hints on making impact measurement and evaluation easy


Goodbye Childcare Hello Freedom

Goodbye Childcare Hello Freedom

2013 is a big year for me. My son reaches 16 in March and I am ready to celebrate, having spent nearly 26 years worrying about and paying for childcare. It didn’t help that I had my two children ten years apart nor that I had four major career changes in that time each needing different arrangements to accommodate the working day, travel to and from work, overnight stays and national travel.

As a single parent for the majority of this time and with no access to extended family (for 21 years), I think childcare has represented the biggest and most stressful part of my working life:

  • The running around at 6.30 in the morning wrestling with a grumpy uncooperative child trying to zip them into their all in one and strap them into the child seat, so I can grab the 7.30 train.
  • The dreaded telephone call from school to say that they have come out in chicken pox and can’t return for ten days – just when I have a really busy time at the office and still have to pay for care I am not receiving.
  • Or the monthly dent in my bank account often leaving me with little more than enough money to live on, pay for nappies and travel to work.

But not anymore!

I have used childcare over three government administrations, spanning three decades the 80s, 90s and 00s, researched and funded childcare as part of my job in the 90s and 00s and have been passionate about the challenges facing working parents all my life.

What has remained unchanged over all these years is affordability and accessibility despite research, policy papers, commissions, programmes, legal duties, tax credits and funding I doubt we are much further forward on issues around affordability than where we were in the eighties. Initiative-itis and shifts in childcare policy over the years have in my view failed to address the fundamental question on whether childcare should be free or subsidised to the extent that it does not prohibit or restrict access to employment. The focus on 0-5’s nursery provision has meant that the needs of school age children are under-served, because part time places do not provide the financial returns of a full-time place. My greatest headaches have been around finding wraparound and holiday care, my experience of school based provision was not good. The inflexibility of picking up times meant that I went back to using a childminder even though I believe school or community based provision can be more appropriate for this age range.

Last year the Government commissioned a consultation on childcare, led by the Department for Education, the Government was supposed to report in the Autumn but rumours point to an imminent publication. The commission sought views on the following issues:

  • Ways to encourage the provision of wraparound and holiday childcare for children of school age.
  • Identifying any regulation that burdens childcare providers unnecessarily because it is not needed for reasons of quality or safety.
  • How childcare supports families to move into sustained employment and out of poverty.

I hope I am not been too disingenuous by saying that I am not expecting much to change as a result of the report. What can we expect? Some flexibility on staffing ratios? A small pump priming fund? Some business support or start up funding for private sector provision?

What we really need is an honest debate about childcare and for governments to stop tinkering around the edges when something far more radical and effective is needed. The IPPR is due to publish a report next month on the economic returns of universal childcare, their article this week in the Telegraph sets out some of the key challenges facing families now.

We also need to avoid the discussions that working and having children is about “having it all” or that it is unfair on people without children by subsidising childcare. The kinds of choices faced by the majority of working women who are on low or medium incomes are about surviving and supporting their family the best way they can.

I ran a childcare programme back in the 90s and got caught up in a debate with a senior female colleague who had decided not to have children and thought that Government subsidies and support for childcare was a waste of money. I asked her if she had a pension and if she had made provision for her future care and support when she was older. She was stumped and couldn’t understand why I was asking her the question. As I began to walk away I reminded her that children growing up then would be paying for her state pension and care through taxation when they got older.

Till next week.

Caroline Masundire