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How do you find time to build the Big Society?

21 July 10 13:13
Busy man
By Jon Kelly
BBC News Magazine

The prime minister wants to build a "big society" by getting volunteers to run services. With our work-life balance already under pressure, how do those with busy jobs and families find the spare time?

OK, so you'd like to give something back to the community. You want to improve the lot of your fellow citizens. Well done.

But first you have to commute to work, put in a shift and trudge back home.

Then the kids need feeding, the dog needs walking and the house needs a clean... and already, the day is almost over.

David Cameron says he wants to rebuild Britain by harnessing "people power" - getting volunteers to run post offices, libraries, transport services and shape housing projects.

But if surveys are to be believed, it may be that the biggest obstacle to his plans may not be his political opponents, but the 24-hour clock.

A 2007 survey for the Cabinet Office (PDF) found that 41% of those who had stopped volunteering had done so because they did not have enough time.

Likewise, a 2009 poll by the Hansard Society asked people who did not feel that they have an influence in decision-making - but who wanted to be involved - what was stopping them. Some 40% cited lack of time as the main reason.

But is the issue really lack of time - or lack of time management?

Certainly, it is hardly surprising that people blessed with an abundance of free afternoons and a lack of financial pressures - that is, those who tend to be both older and better-off - find it easiest to be good citizens.

One recent study (PDF) concluded that those who participate in local decision making "generally are more likely to be white, older, better educated, richer, middle-class males" while volunteers were typically "women, of higher social grades, in managerial positions, degree educated, and middle aged".

However, there are many who face the normal pressures of work and family - yet still manage to devote hours each week to their communities.

Their capacity to volunteer begs the question: how can the government motivate those who are not currently volunteering to do so?

Recent schools of academic thought have suggested that individuals can be gently coaxed into doing so if they are given the right frameworks.

The writer Clay Shirkey has evangelised for the collaborative and collective potential of the web through crowdsourcing.

The book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, which argues governments need to give people better incentives to do the right thing, has been cited as a major influence on Cameron's Conservatives.

Manchester University's Professor Peter John has been involved in a project to road-test this theory - for instance, increasing book donation in libraries by 22% after publicly displaying donors' names, and attracting 63 volunteers in one community by asking everyone who rang a call centre if they wanted to help out.

"I think it's all about giving people a nudge in a way that recognises how they live their lives," he says.

"Very often, it's not that people don't want to volunteer - it's that they haven't been asked."

Whether the government can successfully harness this approach in its bid to build the big society is, of course, one of the key criteria on which it will be judged.

Below are a selection of your comments

I think it's great to see such examples as above. I volunteer as a special constable and also spend a lot of time helping run an amateur theatre company, as well as my job. I admit the pressure on my time is starting to tell after a couple of years, but I could easily manage one or the other! One day a weekend is all it needs, or even once a fortnight. I'd encourage everyone to get out and volunteer, it's added so much to my life (and it's how I met my wife!).

Bas, London

I found the case studies interesting but they are all of a like mind and no-one seems to be putting the opposing point of view. Time IS tight and while it's easy to talk about the big society, the communities that used to make it up have all but disappeared. Village life is fantastic because you know your neighbours, but how many people living in towns and cities actually know other people who live in their flats, on their street, or in the neighbourhood. At the moment it's all talk and it's failing to address the root cause of society's breakdown.

TiggerUSM, Essex

I currently volunteer for about four hours each fortnight and I find it reasonably easy as I work flexitime. If employers were encouraged to allow flexible working for volunteers in the same way they do for carers and parents, then more people would be able to find the time to volunteer.

Antonia, Watford

Anything that gets people volunteering more is great. But core services shouldn't be run by volunteers - that leads to an uneven quality of service. It also takes us back to the time when people treated those less fortunate as charity cases, to be picked up and put down according to their time and interest. We shouldn't go back to treating people with unpopular disorders such as learning disabilities as if services to support them and their families are an act of charity.

Kriss, York

I'm retired and have worked for the last year donating one day a week to a local hospice. The problem I've found with volunteering is that often managers don't know how to use us productively. I'm well-educated, have good computer and organisational skills, but all I've been asked to do is very mundane repetitive jobs such as envelope filling, simple data-processing etc. I appreciate that these things have to be done, but I also would like something more constructive to do for part of my time - after all, I am giving up a day of my week.

Kathryn Coddington, Whitchurch, Shropshire

The Big Society is a Big Con - all it means is that government expects people to work for free where previously it was a government service, run to government regulations. The Big Society means services will become patchy and less reliable, and standards will decrease. But then who cares? Those affected are least likely to have a strong lobby to defend them. Shame on you, Mr Cameron, and let's hope you won't one day depend on volunteers yourself.

Paulina Smid, London

Voluntary activity in recent years has decreased not because of lack of time but because of the overbearing weight of regulation and responsibility now loaded on to the shoulders of volunteer groups. I am an active member of a small local sailing club and like many of my fellow club members give generously of our time (and money) to teach adults and youngsters alike to sail. However the weight of responsibility and the associated costs now make our club look more like an administration centre with a sailing club attached rather than the other way round. Big Society would be given a huge boost simply by reducing the weight of burdensome bureaucracy.

Will Patterson, Dumfries

I pay money to have people do these jobs for me so I can get on with my life. I call the money "taxes" and the people a "government". It works fine for me - maybe David Cameron should try it.

Steve Goodall, Sheffield, UK

As usual there seem to be a lot of people going off at the deep end and complaining vociferously about the idea of doing something for free, we've got so used to the state stepping in we've forgotten how to be self-reliant. The Big Society doesn't have to be about BIG costly projects or volunteers doing work which was previously paid. It could just be something simple like asking an elderly neighbour if they need any shopping done while you do yours, getting together to do a bit of guerrilla gardening to turn a waste spot into something beautiful or lending your professional expertise to a local group.

Diana, Bristol

When I was a full-time housewife I was involved in a range of voluntary activities. If I'm absolutely honest, however, it was more for my own benefit than for the benefits of others. Whilst in principle this is a win-win situation, we have to be careful that less popular causes do not get abandoned. We also need to be aware that some people will become volunteers in order to take up roles that they are not qualified to do. David Cameron's mother was a JP. Perhaps this is where he got his "big idea" from.

Maggie Linnell, Emsworth

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