Big Society is already here: let's not abuse it

David Fleming, Issue 110/09, p16, 01.09.2010
There was a furore in Liverpool recently when prime minister David Cameron came to the city to announce his plan for the Big Society.

Actually, ‘plan’ might be too strong a word for the notion of shifting power from central government to neighbourhoods. It’s more of a dream, a vision, part of the ideology that we should have less (and cheaper) government, and more self-help and involvement.

Remarks attributed to Tory grandee David Davis (“The corollary of the big society is the smaller state. If you talk about the small state, people think you’re Attila the Hun. If you talk about the Big Society, people think you’re Mother Teresa”) indicate what many people think – that Big Society is just another way of describing an ideological attack on public funding.

Hence, the logic goes, Big Society means cutting real paid jobs in the public sector, and substituting them with volunteer (“neighbourhood”) efforts.

When the PM launched the Big Society, he shared the platform with the chairman of National Museums Liverpool (NML), Phil Redmond.

Phil’s comments on the day have been interpreted variously, but some people drew the conclusion that he was offering up NML as an example of somewhere that could cut jobs and get the work done instead through volunteer labour. That’s not what he said, nor what he meant.

What he actually said is: “I have been hugely impressed by the way staff and unions have worked alongside each other since 2003 to develop a volunteer programme that adheres to the TUC Volunteering Charter. At NML, our volunteers enhance what we do for the public, while at the same time offer opportunities for people to make their own contribution to public services.”

This is a good point about the degree to which publicly funded museums rely, have always relied, and will always rely, on volunteer effort. Many people working in museums started as volunteers. I did, cleaning the hypocausts at the Roman Baths Museum in Bath. Phil and his fellow NML trustees are volunteers now.

At NML we currently have more than 500 people who work alongside staff in a variety of voluntary roles. Volunteers work with our adult drama group, our women’s history group, in our aquarium, in craft workshops, in exhibitions, with our historic vessels, as guides, with our archaeologists, with new media, and in a host of other roles.

We calculate that these volunteers contribute about 80,000 hours per year, and perhaps £1m worth of effort. The value of such a relationship between a museum and people who live nearby and want to donate their time has been well rehearsed over the years: volunteers add value to existing services, they deliver additional activities, they help people to develop skills and increase their employment prospects (important in a high-unemployment city such as Liverpool), they bring enthusiasm and ideas, they bring knowledge.

When the prime minister talks about “running parks, libraries and post offices” in a context of putting public finances to the sword in order to reduce the national debt, many will conclude that what he has in mind is replacing paid posts with volunteer effort.

That is not what we have in mind in Liverpool. Misunderstandings about the role of volunteers must not have a detrimental effect on volunteer programmes in museums, which cannot become a substitute for fulltime employment. In the museum sector, the Big Society is already here.

David Fleming is the director of National Museums Liverpool