Job losses, scepticism, re-branding a flagship initiative … no, this isn’t the Health Bill
The attempt this week to win over public and professionals alike to the Government’s reforms of the NHS brought to mind another recent re-branding exercise where David Cameron tried to salvage a flagship policy in the face of overwhelming scepticism.
Yes, I’m talking about the Big Society.
As with the NHS, so with the Big Society. The Prime Minister nailed his personal colours to the mast. He told us of his “passion” and his “100% commitment” to his “mission” to “try and build a bigger and stronger society whatever is happening to public spending.”
But evidence continues to suggest that the Big Society remains crippled by the devastating impact of the Government’s cuts on the voluntary sector and the resulting levels of sceptism among the workforce and general public.
The general public certainly don’t seem to be buying it.
59% of voters responding to YouGov agreed with the statement that the ‘Big Society’ was “mostly hot air” and “a cover for the government while they cut public services” and 68% said that it would probably not work.
Perceptions among the workforce are much the same.
A survey by Third Sector and LGC shows that there is not only a lukewarm response to the government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda among public sector staff but also those working in the voluntary sector. According to their findings only 9% of voluntary sector respondents thought the main effect of the ‘Big Society’ would be an increase in citizen action and only 11% thought it would bring greater opportunities to set up voluntary and community groups. These figures were similar to respondents from the public sector.
Again, drawing parallels with the ill-fated Health and Social Care Bill, the Government put this down to poor communication and a failure of people to understand their message. Sources close to the Prime Minister admit that there has been somewhat of a “communication failure” and an inability to “sell” its key policies.
Coming from a PR background, it’s understandable that the Prime Minster would attribute policy failure to a poor sales pitch. But a closer look at the available ‘market research’ might reveal two important, albeit uncomfortable, home truths for Mr Cameron.
First, the voluntary and community sector is in freefall and things are going to get worse.
It is true that the leadership of some the umbrella bodies in the sector feel some enthusiasm for the perceived opportunities offered through competing in a market for public services. But the vast majority of community and voluntary organisations and charities are facing desperate times. A quick glimpse at the Voluntary Sector Cuts website gives you an idea of the carnage.
Employment in the sector fell towards the end of last year and continued to flatline coming into this year. A clearer picture will emerge as we enter the financial year end and organisations up and down the country discover the future of their funding.
Predictions are grim, however.
The NCVO’s charity forecast shows that 97% respondents expect economic conditions to worsen in the voluntary sector in 2011, 66% expected their organisation’s expenditure to decrease and 55% intended to reduce staff numbers in the next three months. Worryingly, 35% said that their organisation planned to decrease the extent of their services.
At a recent event hosted by the TUC and NAVCA, many organisations present were planning for job cuts. NAVCA predict over 20,000 job losses in the local voluntary sector, including community development workers, volunteer centre organisers, youth volunteering workers and funding advisers.
One particular example from the TUC and NAVCA event was Community Links, a high profile community organisation operating in East London, who claim that 3 of their 10 community centres will close, a further 5 are under review and the whole children, youth and community work team were at risk of redundancy, representing 25% of their total workforce.
Clearly this is going to badly damage the sector’s ability to deliver effective services.
Again, survey evidence makes for depressing reading. 97% of respondents to a London Voluntary Service Council survey reported that their communities were still suffering the effects of the recession, 70% reported an increased demand for their services and 75% were not confident of meeting this demand now or in the future.
The second home truth that the Government (and perhaps some members of the opposition) might want to consider is that there remains very little appetite among the general public for the marketisation of public services and the role of the voluntary sector in delivering those services.
Research from IPPR/PWC found that there was a degree of appetite among the public for a greater say in public services, however their report found that that “while there is support for the public to take more of a role, people nevertheless believe that the state should remain primarily responsible for delivering most public services”.
94% of respondents to their survey believed that national or local government or public service providers should be mainly responsible for providing health care, 93% believe that different state agencies should be responsible for running local schools and 93% believe that national or local government or public professionals should be responsible for keeping the streets safe.
A YouGov survey found that 73% of voters disagreed or strongly disagreed with more competition within the NHS, while another survey found that 89% of the public thought that “public services should be run by the Government or local authorities”.
What is all this telling us? Deep and rapid spending cuts undermine service delivery. The public don’t trust the market with their public services.
Two valuable lessons the Government might want to take on board in regard to the Big Society. And the NHS.