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David Cameron’s idea of the “Big Society” received yet another makeover on Wednesday when the government launched a special bank designed to help voluntary organisations raise capital to fund their activities. Perhaps the provision of £600m, mainly lifted from dormant bank accounts, will unlock the public spirit in the British people and get them to do what the prime minister wants, namely to take “more power and control” over their own communities.
But the announcement prompts a thought: is money – or the lack of it – the only reason why the public has failed to breathe much life into Mr Cameron’s vision? It is all very well talking, as he does, about people doing more stuff for themselves. But for this to happen, officialdom must step back and give them the space to do so. If anything, the urge to regulate even innocuous activities seems ever more firmly wired into the official British soul.
Take an event not generally thought of as a Big Society project, although it is perhaps the biggest one there is: the London Olympics. The organisers are recruiting a 70,000-strong army of unpaid volunteers to buzz around the games doing everything from keeping the time at events to ferrying journalists from venue to venue.
Apparently, the idea of having such volunteers was dreamt up the last time the games were in London in 1948. It is in many respects a lovely concept. What simpler way could there be of involving the public in a global spectacle for which we are all paying? How much more pleasant for foreign visitors to the games to meet ordinary Brits rather than hired “RoboCop” officials of the sort that proliferated at the Beijing Olympics in 2008?
To be clear, these are not decorative jobs. Many of the volunteers will not be hanging out “trackside” with Usain Bolt and co, but toiling away behind the scenes – often at unsociable hours. Unpaid, moreover, does not just mean without stipend; volunteers must meet their own expenses as well as find somewhere to stay in London during the games if they do not live in the capital – which many do not.
And one should never forget the final indignity – the hideous pink and purple uniform that volunteers must wear at all times, topped off by the sort of porkpie hat generally sported by those in paid employment behind the meat counter at Asda.
No one would deny that a 70,000-strong army needs rules and discipline if it is not to turn into a rabble. Clearly, the volunteers need to be instructed how to deal with the public. While the Daily Mail has scoffed at some of the “inclusiveness” training – which includes instructions on whether a “games ambassador” should direct cross-dressers towards male or female lavatories – much of it is unexceptionable.
What is more puzzling, and disappointing, is the obsession with controlling what people say. Volunteers are not, for instance, to speak to the media without permission, or to comment publicly on their own experience. There are even strict rules on the use of social media. Comments can only be posted online in special vetted “official spaces” provided by the organisers.
Setting aside the casual infringement of free expression – and the question of whether the organisers have the right to require confidentiality of people they are not paying – the implication is highly negative. Even motivated, engaged people who want to help and give their time for free are not to be trusted, it screams.
Beyond the PR obsessions of the organisers, there are regulations that defy common sense. Take the question of accommodation, which will doubtless be scarce and expensive come late summer. Because many volunteers are from outside London, some suggested to the organisers it would make sense to exchange details so that London-based volunteers could offer rooms to those from the provinces. The idea was immediately slapped down. Anyone offering accommodation to a third party, the organisers said, would have to go through a police criminal records check.
It is this sort of petty obstacle, as much as any shortage of capital, that deters volunteers for simple tasks that might assist others. A glamorous global event such as the Olympics will always get the help it needs. But if Mr Cameron wants to encourage more of the everyday sort of voluntarism, he should think not only about cash, but also about how to smooth off the rough edges that stop people pitching in more.