Interviewing the real ‘big society’

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Photo of Sarah LambSarah Lamb is a trustee of Adur Voluntary Action. She was one of the people who contributed to qualitative research in 2009 on The local state and voluntary action in West Sussex which showed the damage commissioning does. NCIA caught up with her to find out how things have been going over the last 18 months, which have seen the change of government and a bombardment of information about localism and ‘big society’.

Sarah has left her job with Citizens Advice Bureau and is doing some unpaid research about setting up a time bank in Lancing, West Sussex. “I’ve been a volunteer for a long time,” she says of this latest volunteering adventure.

Sarah started her career as a tax inspector and worked as a tax manager with accountancy firm Grant Thornton but “it didn’t sit comfortably saving people from paying tax who I think didn’t really deserve help.”

So when she had kids she took some time out from paid work and started to look at local community activities that fitted better with raising a family. She started out helping with the local mother and toddler group then did basic counselling training and helped to resolve neighbourhood conflicts, working with the now-defunct Adur Independent Mediation Service.

The Citizen’s Advice Bureau was next door so Sarah popped in one day, started as a volunteer and then trained as a generalist advisor. As her children grew older and Sarah’s circumstances changed, Sarah applied for a paid job as a supervisor in the CAB and was able to work her way up.

When she started as an advice session supervisor she supported volunteers who were doing the same work she had done. “The pleasure of it was going into a place where everyone is trying to do the same thing. If you work in the private sector you can take the attitude of ‘I don’t give a toss about the rest of the company, this is my job and I’ll do it nine to five and then go home’” but Sarah was attracted to the voluntary sector because “everybody comes in and wants to get on with it.”

She is angry about the ‘big society’: “It’s very patronising and it feels like the government doesn’t understand that so much of what they’re talking about is already going on.

“I think it’s wrong of them to say that the voluntary sector has all the answers. I don’t think that there’s such a thing as a uniform voluntary sector. In Adur it’s lots of different organisations and individuals trying to do things. And they don’t have the answers to all the problems.”

She’s also worried about the nostalgia in the ‘big society’ proposals for “the time when neighbours used to do things for everybody else. If it was that good, why did we need the welfare state?

“I think it’s so cynical because you can’t say that’s a bad idea. You can’t say I don’t think people should volunteer and have community spirit because of course they should have. But I don’t think it can replace public services.”

Since leaving the CAB, Sarah has picked up her interest in counselling and will be studying an advanced course. She draws on her advice experience: “A lot of times as an advisor you couldn’t completely solve a person’s problem but they always said, I feel a lot better now I’ve spoken to somebody about it. It’s that act of sharing with someone that is really important.” That experience is a mile away from the culture of targets and management jargon that many voluntary sector organisations are drowning in as they compete for contracts.

Sarah is proposing that the time bank be local rather than across the district because there is an established community building (Chesham House, where Adur Voluntary Action is based) with active groups like lunch clubs and because it “will attract more local people because they identify very strongly with their immediate local area – they need a sense of belonging.”

Click here to read the summary of the 2009 qualitative research on commissioning in West Sussex.

Click here to read our report on advice services, which covers four areas of the UK and shows how holistic local advice services are fast disappearing in a fog of contracts, targets and the profit motive.

Or take a look at Big Market – our short leaflet about the ‘big society’ and localism and the damage these plans do to voluntary action.

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