While I was on the way to a policy forum at British Academy yesterday, Reuters rang me and asked me for my views on the Big Society. I should have waited until I got to the policy forum when Sam Brittan described it as the grandchild of the third way, another semi-populist idea. He didn't mind as long as he was not asked to lead a troop of boy scouts round Notting Hill!
The big society will depend on third sector organisations recruiting, mobilising and organising volunteeers. To do that they will need some money. The other question is where these volunteers are going to come from. People in work and with families are time poor. Decades ago women who did not go to work provided a ready made supply of volunteers for charitable work, but social changes have led to their disappearance. That leaves the active elderly and many of them are already committed to organisations like the National Trust or charity shops.
As it so happens, I was talking to a third sector organisation earlier in the week and the Government had stated that they would be taken on responsibilities it was dropping which was fine in principle except that there had been no prior discussion about this.
The literature shows that third sector organisations are often particularly good at serving client groups with heterogeneous needs. They are more flexible than traditional state bureaucracies and often more dynamic. So there could certainly be an extended role for them, but it will require some money and a little more forethought and discussion. It is certainly not going to bring quick results.