Big Society and Big Uncertainty
8 Big Questions Non-profit Organisations Should Ask
This article addresses a new phenomenon in the United Kingdom launched by Prime Minister David Cameron called Big Society. The objective of Big Society as stated in the Forward to the Green Paper from the Cabinet Office reflects their “respect for the contribution that civil society organisations can make to shaping and delivering more efficient public services that better meet the needs of the people who use them”. Whilst a UK initiative, the combined objectives of budget deficit reduction, increased engagement of civil society, and increased efficacy of services to beneficiaries are questions broadly applicable internationally – as is the uncertainty that arises from broad-sweeping government policies. For purposes of this article, the emphasis will be on the implications for, and potential contribution of, non-profit organisations – again internationally applicable.
For many voluntary sector organisations, deciphering the implications of Big Society seems insurmountable. With due respect to the sponsors of Big Society, the proposal seems vast and imprecisely defined. It is difficult for organisations to know where to begin – from the perspective of organisations’ individual situations, the beneficiaries of their services, and the Third Sector more generally. As the Founder of a pro bono consultancy for non-profit organisations, I am an active participant in the Third Sector in the UK and internationally. However, I will not try to assess the myriad thoughtful, informative arguments for and against Big Society that have appeared in the press recently from experts in government, civil society, and the Third Sector. Rather, this article proposes a neutral, concrete process of analysis for non-profit organisations: 8 Big Questions that voluntary sector organisations should ask themselves as Society becomes Big. All underlie an overarching basic concern irrespective of specific arguments for or against the policy: navigating Big Society’s Big Uncertainty.
These questions require monitoring over time, through both backward- and forward-looking periodic review and a five-year review at the end of Big Society’s specified initial timetable. A one-time, current forward-looking analysis today is insufficient. These questions prioritise furthering the mission and risk management of the organisation. In addition, these questions should be considered from the perspective of the beneficiaries of services – not just the organisation, the government’s budget deficit, or a desire to encourage greater volunteerism or other citizen participation in social services. Importantly, these questions are designed to ensure that voluntary organisations, and their trustees and management teams, remain focused on the highest standards of accountability, governance, and ethics when confronting the Big Society Big Uncertainty.
1. Is increasing volunteering right for your organisation? Many organisations are interpreting Big Society as a call to increase volunteering, whether by recruiting additional volunteers, adding new volunteer programs, or increasing the responsibilities and time commitment of current volunteers. Some are reacting to the idea expressed in the Big Society Not Big Government Document that Big Society wants “every adult in the country to be an active member of an active neighbourhood group.” Not all services are best provided by volunteers, even in the context of a non-profit organisation. The important balance between paid staff and volunteers varies widely and should not be the subject of Big Society generalisations that any increase in volunteering is positive (for Big Society or the organisation). Are the financial costs to the organisation of increasing volunteers worth the result (i.e., is there true value and quality for money in terms of executing your mission and delivery of services to beneficiaries)? Are qualified, committed volunteers available? Would you consider any increases in volunteering in your organisation had Big Society not been proposed? If not, are those decisions truly the right ones for your organisation?
2. The Big Strategic Plan: Does Big Society influence your organisation’s strategic goals? It is crucial to integrate Big Society (even the accompanying Big Uncertainty) into your on-going strategic planning process. For many organisations, Big Society potentially touches all aspects of the classic SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) from both internal organisational and external environmental perspectives. In addition, it is important to consider the implications of Big Society for potential (i) opportunities for growth and development (internal and through partnerships and alliances); (ii) risk management; (iii) financial model and sustainability; and (iv) human impact on stakeholders. Finally, Big Society could affect the process of strategic plan implementation: actions to be taken to implement the strategy; persons responsible for various tasks; deadlines; required resources; and methods of evaluation. Examples might include budget cuts or increases, opportunities to use volunteers, pressure to merge with another organisation, or the need to delay certain previously planned actions to observe Big Society developments.
3. Do the programmatic choices you make in response to Big Society – whether to cut or redesign programs or to add services other organisations no longer offer – reflect an allocation of responsibility best suited to effective, efficient, service delivery? This question asks you to analyse thoroughly whether your organisation is the best suited for existing and potentially new programs in the context of Big Society. It also asks how any essential services to be cut might be replaced and how your organisation can contribute to the smoothest transition. As with most of the 8 Big Questions, the analysis will likely suffer from Big Uncertainty and may evolve with Big Society. Consider this question from the point of view of the beneficiaries of services and not just government, the organisation, or the Third sector. Consider this from the human and organisational perspectives and not just financial or organisational structure results.
4. What are the potential financial and human resources Big Society can offer that your organisation did not have before? Of all of the 8 Big Questions, this one seems the least clear in these early days – i.e., the source of the Biggest Uncertainty. Organisations should actively investigate and monitor new funding opportunities from government. The voluntary sector should also be particularly mindful of information from, and the reactions of, other voluntary organisations and sector-wide research. Are there opportunities to integrate or disband particular service areas? For alliances with government or other organisations? This may well be to some extent an iterative process of observation and reaction despite Big Society’s proactive tone. The sector will need to question who will collect the relevant sector-wide data, determine the appropriate methodology of assessment, and define the type of data that should be the priorities. Again, whether dealing with donor funds or government support, the priorities for information collection that addresses the Big Uncertainty should be dictated by the missions and efficacy and efficiency of services to beneficiaries and not just financial results or a desire to increase civic involvement.
5. What do Big Society’s Big Words mean to your organisation? The lack of clarity of Big Society terminology is another key area of Big Society’s Big Uncertainty. It is impossible to interpret and respond to broad sweeping policy without a specific vocabulary. Big Society speaks in grand phrases and blanket concepts: Big Words. These include “people power”, “pushing power down”, “empowerment”, “stopping you” “decentralization” “influence” and “the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power” from “elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street”. The Big Society Network web site reads, “The Big Society is a society in which individual citizens feel big: big in terms of being supported and enabled; having real and regular influence; being capable of creating change in their neighbourhood (emphasis added).” Even big “rewards” are promised to “everyone.” Really? Everyone? Does “everyone” refer to individuals? Voluntary organisations? Your voluntary organisation? Some vague notion of society as a whole? And what is a “reward”? From whose perspective? What are the criteria (qualitative and quantitative)? Is “reward” a net positive (i.e., weighing up all of the positives and negatives of Big Society)? Or is the presence of any positive irrespective of any negative still a reward? Would a Third Sector employee losing a job feel “rewarded” on a net basis with a lower council tax bill? Be mindful of Big Words in your interpretation of, and response to, Big Society. Do not use Big Words to interpret, analyse, or communicate your involvement in Big Society.
6. What are the Big Risks? What are strategies for mitigating Big Risks? Risk assessment is the most difficult area in many cases as indeed a major risk can be Big Society’s Big Uncertainty itself. This question requires vigilant monitoring over time. Organisations need to anticipate reactions of government, other non-profit organisations, volunteers, donors and other members of civil society in the context of lack of specificity in the Big Society policies. It is also important to consider potential unintended negative consequences of Big Society for your organisation. Clearly for some organisations the risks may be loss of funding, whereas for others they may be related to a competitor’s increased strength or a real estate or regulatory issue. Therefore, the key is to monitor two levels: the specific risk sensitivities of your organisation and the general and specific developments in Big Society. Indeed many of these 8 Big Questions are intended to mitigate risk.
7. What is the impact of Big Society’s Big Uncertainty on your donors? The broad media coverage surrounding Big Society’s Big Uncertainty will necessarily raise questions with donors. Thus another area of Big Society’s Big Uncertainty is how donors respond to changes in an organisation internally or the external environment more generally. Donor concerns might include: the sustainability of the organisation; other more effective opportunities for giving; replacing financial support to respond to the call for volunteers; loss of individual giving capacity; and general malaise with the lack of understanding of the specific consequences of Big Society. Stay in close touch with your donors and the public. Ensure they are aware of your views of Big Society and any changes or planned changes to your organisation in real time. Such changes may be positive or negative, financial or non-financial, short- or long-term. Be focused in your communication. Try to mitigate the uncertain impact of Big Society by highlighting the relevance of any developments to your organisation as specifically as possible (no Big Words!). Conversely, if you feel your organisation will not be much affected by Big Society, explain why. In either case, help donors understand how Big Society will affect your sector. (Big Society will not be the same size in education, health care, elderly, care, and housing.) Remember the “real time” requirement: transparency requires regular on-going re-evaluation and communication of the internal and external situation. Finally, ensure that any restrictions on donor funds already committed through pledges or gifts are strictly respected despite any Big Society changes in the organisation.
8. Are you maintaining first in class accountability, governance, and ethics in all of your decision-making? Are you flexibly adapting accountability, governance, and ethics policies and practices as Big Society evolves? Big Society might involve one or more of a broad range of changes in your organisation: budget cuts; program re-design; modifying volunteer practices; entering into formal alliances or partnerships with other organisations or government; or human resource challenges. As you make these decisions, always ask the question “what is the impact of an action or decision on your accountability, governance, and ethics policies and practices”? Does an increased number of volunteers require drafting a volunteer code of ethics or reconsidering management of volunteers? Does a partnership require restructuring governance and/or seeking more professional advice? Ensure your basics are rock solid: conflicts of interest policy; audit committee with independent oversight; some form of code of ethics applicable to all internal and external stakeholders; transparency to donors and the public; a fully engaged, trained, informed, and regularly evaluated board of trustees; internal controls and other financial oversight mechanisms; professional legal, accounting and other relevant advice; compliance with legal requirements; and adequate human resources policies. In general, accountability should be considered with what I call 20/20 foresight: what do you want to be able to say you have done in the event of an unanticipated crisis and/or failure to meet your objectives? That is, 20/20 foresight asks you to project yourself into the future – in this case, perhaps in five years’ time according to Big Society’s initial timetable. Then ask yourself what accountability steps you want to be able to say you took along the way in the context of Big Society’s Big Uncertainty.
You will note that these 8 Big Questions are inter-linked. Donor communication relates to accountability and transparency, which relates to strategic planning in order to clarify the actions that will be communicated to donors, which relates to clarity of interpretation of Big Words, and so on. The 8 Big Questions are intended to reinforce each other such that your organisation will not only weather but benefit from Big Society, notwithstanding Big Uncertainty, from the perspective of both the organisation and the beneficiaries of your services. Remember to engage stakeholders at all levels of your organisation in developing a clearer understanding and decision-making in order to maximise commitment to implement changes. Finally, the crucial attention to mission and beneficiaries of services, as well as accountability, governance, and ethics underlie each of these 8 Big Questions and the overarching response to any aspect of Big Society’s Big Uncertainty.
Copyright 2011 Susan Liautaud. All rights reserved
 Forward by Nick Hurd (MP Minister for Civil Society). Modernising Commissioning: Increasing the role of charities, social enterprises, mutuals and cooperatives in public service delivery. (2010), page 3. Retrieved March 28, 2011 from: http://download.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/green-paper/commissioning-green-paper.pdf
 Conservative party. “Big Society, Not Big Government”. (2010), page 1 (Introduction). Retrieved March 28, 2011 from: http://www.conservatives.com/news/news_stories/2010/03/~/media/Files/Downloadable%20Files/Building-a-Big-Society.ashx
 The Big Society Network. What is Big Society? Retrieved March 28, 2011 from: http://thebigsociety.co.uk/what-is-big-society/
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