Power to the people - part 2

There might be also an inherent tension between a central drive for local action and the independence of local groups. A recent TSRC Working Paper, Understanding the distinctiveness of small scale, third sector activity, examined the scale and impact of small, idealistic community groups. A survey showed how flexibility and independence was seen as a major strength by these groups. "You are free to say what you want, independent and not tied to any funding, funder or project delivery targets," as one of the respondents put it.

As they only are accountable to their own members, small and informal organisations can choose to be radical in their philosophy and actions. "For some, being below the regulatory radar was an advantage to small groups enabling them to operate differently from the mainstream. Not constrained by bureaucracy or regulation they could do what they wanted, change their approach when necessary, and be radical," the Working Paper points out. If these small local groups were to become part of concerted community action, this independence would be challenged.

The Big Society vision might offer new opportunities for individuals, but it will also pose new challenges for organisations. The trend for third-sector organisations to provide public services has been growing over the last decade. Big Society plans foresee that this growth will continue, with both traditional public sector actors and charities bidding for contracts for public services.

But increasing third sector forays into the public sector could come at a cost. In order to ensure that services meet legal standards and are properly managed - for instance in providing health care or schooling - all actors delivering public services will need to be following the same set of procedures.

"The distinction will become less clear between public sector institutions and third sector organisations, and a consequence of this is that the third sector providers risk losing their original identity," warns Professor Alcock. "As service providers they could become dependent on public funding, losing some of their independent status. The organisational costs that come with the delivery of public services can change the nature of the organisation, making it bigger and more businesslike. Mergers, collaborations and sub-contracting will probably become a trend, with fewer and bigger organisations emerging as a result," he adds.

Professor Alcock points to last year’s merger between Help the Aged and Age Concern to Age UK as being an indicator of what may be to come. It seems that times are changing for the third sector in the age of Big Society.

From the ESRC magazine Society Now

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