The Role of Big Business in the Big Society

Oli Thomas

The Big Society? 

Cast your mind back to May 2010 – the collapse of Lehman Brothers was yesterday’s news, the markets were gaining confidence, the weather was good (the driest May in the UK for over a decade) and even the music industry was getting involved – Roll Deep’s “Good Times” was at number one in the UK chart. It is no surprise therefore that a great pillar of Conservative policy as they rolled into Downing Street was the concept of the Big Society; a simple concept that, through empowering communities with greater responsibility and through individuals taking a more active role, we should all be able to play a greater role in improving our society. “The worst of the recession is over, your jobs will be fine, so let’s start being nice to each other”. Makes sense, no?

It is easy to see why the Big Society has slipped off the agenda in recent months as the euro zone crisis has escalated and fears of global contagion have spread. It is also not unsurprising that it has been met with much scepticism in political circles – to the liberalists, it is a cost cutting exercise to decentralise government offices; to the traditional conservatives, it is a policy littered with Marxist undertones.

But the moral agenda that lies beneath the political and financial agendas, at the heart of the Prime Minister’s policy, is key to achieving progress in many other areas of the political landscape. It need not, and cannot, be driven from Westminster. What this really requires, aside from policies and publicity, is a fundamental shift in mindsets – a willingness to support community projects, to want to make a difference, a desire to start repairing the hole that has torn right through the fabric of today’s society. A hole that was exposed all too clearly in last August’s London riots.

And the significance of the private sector’s role in facilitating this shift should not be overlooked – in many ways the Big Society is the individual’s version of CSR (corporate social responsibility): an individual social responsibility. Just as we expect charitable and socially responsible initiatives from business; it is not unreasonable to expect the same from individuals.

And they are inextricably linked, for CSR is nothing without ISR. Companies can create the opportunities for employee involvement but without the will of the individuals, these opportunities will remain unfulfilled.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that it is in the corporate interest to promote such involvement: a survey of over 1,000 employees by LeapCR, the employee engagement consultancy, found that 63% of UK employees believe that having paid time off during working hours to commit to charitable initiatives would significantly improve employee engagement.

In 2010, the City of London’s white paper “Volunteering – The Business Case” found that volunteers develop skills that are strongly related to their effectiveness at work. Furthermore, the average annual cost to support a volunteer in London was £381 compared to an average of £400 invested in training an employee each year.

As people demand more from their employers, and the ‘Occupy-effect” continues to drive negative publicity for large corporations, it is in the company interest to encourage employees to get involved in community affairs – as a mechanism for increased engagement and as a cost-effective form of training.Employers therefore have a key role to play in promoting ISR – in making time available for employees to volunteer, in promoting the benefits to employee development, in providing the opportunities, and in recognizing social contribution in appraisal schemes.

The Big Society is not a panacea for the plethora of social issues affecting Britain today. But neither should the relevance of its simple message be lost in cynicism. As we look for greater ways to align the interests of business with the interests of society, and as political and business leaders are pre-occupied in fire-fighting the ongoing financial crisis, adopting a bottom-up approach to social responsibility would appear to be the best place to start.