Dear Dave, The Olympics has nothing to do with the ‘Big Society’

Games Makers – having fun

Whether you like it or not, you are now a symbol of volunteering, a community spirited nation – a ‘big society’ if you will.

If you mix volunteering with community spirit and sprinkle on top some hideous corporate sponsorships, what do you get? Games Makers, and according to Cameron, “[an] expression of the Big Society in action”.  McDonald’s helpfully pointed out that we are all (even the helpless small baby staring blankly) ‘making the Games’ – we are all the Big society.

Nearly a quarter of a million of us applied to volunteer at the Olympics (240,000). Out of these 70,000 were selected based on criteria such as a ‘can do attitude’ and being ‘inspirational’ (I wish I had applied now just to have been in the interview, “So Steve, can you give me an example of when you have been inspirational?”).

I wish to take nothing away from the Games Makers though; they have been a great success.  I take my hat off to you all. What I wish to raise here is what, if anything, Games Makers have to do with Dave and Ronald.

Like the weather and other events that have got literally nothing to with politics, politicians have been falling over themselves to associate themselves with this unprecedented wave of positivity associated with the Olympics.  Cameron cannot help himself but to talk about the Big Society. Before the Games even started he commented, “these Games are the biggest and most tangible expression of the Big Society in action”.

I don’t want to poop on Cameron’s party here, but is it not possible they volunteered because they like sport and/or wanted to be involved in a once in a life time event like the Olympics? Just wanting a little bit of fun without much commitment?

Sunny Hundal the Guardian columnist, got a wee bit of a Conservative backlash earlier when he tweeted, “Chances of Olympics volunteers becoming school sports volunteers wildly optimistic. Most did it to get into watch Olympics”. Ooh the skeptic. It makes sense though, doesn’t it?

40% of those who applied to be volunteers had never volunteered before. Something about the Olympics made people give up their time in a way that the WI, Amnesty International or their local youth club didn’t.

Conservative Dan Hannan MEP however was having none of it. He tweeted back to Sunny in a flash saying, “The ones I’ve spoken to were doing it from sheer decency”.

It rather begs the question though, if this ‘sense of decency’ was enough to inspire them to volunteer why had it never ‘inspired’ them in the past. There is no shortage of very ‘decent’ organisations that are desperate for ‘decent’ volunteers.

Like a one night stand the appeal of the volunteering at the Olympics is simple, it is fun and lacks any real long-term commitment.

Without taking anything away from the volunteers, they are certainly not the foundation building blocks for which to construct long-term social projects. They are there for a quick slap and tickle and then they will be back to their 9-5.

In short Dave, I am afraid the success of the Game Makers has nothing to do with your conceptual Big Society and it has everything to do with the excitement of hosting one of the biggest sporting events in the world.

Oh and Ronald, you and your friends over at Big Mac HQ, you have nothing to do with sporting excellence either. You’re as transparent as the grease soaked wrapper of one of your burgers.


Filed under Politics, Social comment, Sport

7 responses to “Dear Dave, The Olympics has nothing to do with the ‘Big Society’

  1. If I didn’t comment on this article I wouldn’t be able to look you in the face again as volunteering and the ‘Big Society’ is at the heart of my work and community…. Before I launch into ramblings I want to share this video of a Game Maker with you that I particularly love!

    I have to say I agree with Russ’s opening comment – this is an unnecessarily bitter article. Admittedly, like you, I use ‘ ’ to depict the ‘BIG SOCIETY’, like you, I find this concept woolly at best but unlike you I dare to dream of seeing a Big Society in a town near me soon. Now don’t go taking this admission as a declaration of love for Cameron, as it is not – but what is so wrong about wishing to see us return to a time where community meant more than the boundaries in which you lived, or your ethnic background? Where a community is based on neighbourliness, kindness, co-production and mutual respect? Where one kind act deserves another?

    There is nothing wrong with this – and the Game Makers are a great example of co-operation and collaboration as Russ points out. If you strip away Dave and Ronald and think of the true (non-spin doctor type) meaning of Big Society the Game Makers can stand proud – they are a national example of co-production.

    And who really cares if they are doing this in return for a favour? Other organisations and charities are realising the same thing – look at Fairshares, they are a charity that provide a volunteering scheme in which participants can gain credits in return for an hour of their time. They can then use these credits to get something back. Prisoners in Gloucester fix bikes to send to third world countries and in return get to film themselves reading a bed time story to their kids that is sent home. Everyone is a winner.

    What we need to be doing is evaluating what is so great about volunteering at national events and seeing if any of these reasons can be transferred to increasing volunteering numbers at local youth clubs or community groups – so OK helping improve your local area doesn’t make you a all singing all dancing Place Maker but it will certainly give you a great sense of achievement, a feeling of community and connectedness which at the end of the day is exactly how a Game Maker feels (along with shattered after a day of shouting with a megaphone).

    It excites me (sad I know) that 40% of those who applied to be volunteers had never volunteered before – yes I am sure the primary reason for volunteering is to be part of a once in a life time event – but even if a handful of these 28,000 ‘virgin volunteer’ Game Makers, after they take off their uniforms at the end of the Olympics, realise the positive affects volunteering had on their wellbeing and seek further volunteering opportunities that we are a small step closer to a Big Society.

    Who says these Game Makers are not the foundation building blocks for long-term social projects? The less cynical of us might say let’s wait and see.


    • Hannah,

      Think of the “Big Society” on two levels. One, mine and yours. Two, Westminister.

      At mine or your level, it makes sense – more volunteering, community spirit etc = great! And the Games Makers (as Russ and Ian) say, show the POTENTIAL. But it is only potential. As I said to Russ, an admirable ideal to work towards. This ideal is not something that will either be achieved or not achieved though – in reality, important work like yours will move us towards this ideal but we will inevitably fall short. The consequences of falling short without gov’t support is what I am worried about. Part of the PR ‘spin’ of the Big society is that people like me or you can define it however we want to define it – this masks its problems at a gov’t level.

      At a Governmental level – where to start?

      The Government has three stated aims for the ‘Big Society’ – it will help to replace ‘big government’, to mend ‘our broken society’ and help to cut the size of the public deficit. Bold! Getting people at local level to take more responsibility and do more to help themselves and their neighbours is seen as an alternative to action taken by state institutions and public services (While I suspect your vision of the big society is to do things in ADDITION to the services the gov’t provides). Poverty, unemployment and inequalities are signs of social breakdown and these, according to the Prime Minister, are best addressed by shifting power, control and responsibility from the central state to families and communities. Cameron would argue, increasing the volume of voluntary action is a way to cut public spending. In my mind it is not an effective replacement to professional services that people rely on. I would argue the opposite, that the state has a responsibility to address these problems themseleves.

      You cannot understand the Big Society vision as separate from the austerity agenda.

      By cutting the funding for social and care related labour in the community we are removing the experience and skills of existing providers and the impact these can have in terms of long term social change. Where charities and community groups and members are stepping in, they are doing so at a stretched point where they have to concentrate on short term need rather than being able to build for social change.

      The big society does not recognise that the current structure of the UK economy selectively restricts the ability of citizens to participate leaving entire communities vulnerable.

      In short, there are some things the government should be taking responsibility for and civil society does not have the skills/time or inclination to step in effectively. I have talked to too many social and care providers (professional) to know the struggle they are under because of gov’t cuts. The Big society is a at best a smokescreen.

      You ask ,”what is so wrong about wishing to see us return to a time where community meant more than the boundaries in which you lived, or your ethnic background? Where a community is based on neighbourliness, kindness, co-production and mutual respect? Where one kind act deserves another?” I answer NOTHING! It sounds great, but don’t be naive, this is not Dave’s image of a big society (or at least not the primary goal).


    • I have just been sent this as well – might well be worth a read


    • And they call you an ‘aimless optimist’ Steve. I happen to both agree with Hannah and Russ and also agree with you on this:

      – 1. Hannah and Russ are right – we should be celebrating people for volunteering and getting involved whatever the reason they do it.We shouldn’t be just be cynical about people’s involvement in the olympics – we should be proud and excited.

      – 2. We are also right to critique Cameron’s ‘big society’ concept. This is not because community cohesion, voluntary work or relying on ones neighbors aren’t wonderful – they are! And they should be encouraged and supported in every possible way. It’s because when someone implements cuts that cut crucial funding to training for volunteers at CABs , or youth clubs run by volunteers or pensioner clubs while simultaneously wittering on about how important the big society is then we have a right to be very, very cynical about it.


  2. For me, this article is unnecessarily bitter. As Iain Martin put it:

    “He shouldn’t claim for the Big Society the glorious ranks of volunteers who have helped make the Olympics such a success, and who have been such a cheery and energising presence in London. But he can point to their efforts as evidence that there is an appetite for co-operation and collaboration.”

    If people need a quid-pro-quo to do a bit of volunteering, that’s hardly news, is it? How many people will work a shift in a beer tent to get festival tickets? What we should be doing is trying to capture the mood of optimism that the Olympics has generated and targeting it in useful places, rather than taking the opportunity to have another pop at Cameron…


    • Russ, an admirable aim “to capture the mood of optimism that the Olympics has generated” which if it happens, then great! I just don’t think it will happen. I think in a months time, it will be back to the same old patterns of volunteering (or lack of volunteering) and I think that it is essential to highlight the multiple flaws in Cameron’s Big Society concept.

      On a separate note, I was slightly surprised to see Cameron mention the big society again. I had kind of assumed that it went out of the door with Hilton (


    • Why is a quid pro quo needed if this is “evidence that there is an appetite for co-operation and collaboration.”? Likening it to a shift in a festival beer tent further undermines the argument unfortunately.

      I do hope, as most will, that this optimism continues. However Steve, I dont’ think that can be measured by something as tangible as volunteering for ‘decent’ organisations.

      In the first instance I would rather see this translate into a generosity of spirit and concern for the welfare of others. Respect for fellow community members would have a greater day to day impact. That is not much use to Mr Cameron though in providing statistical evidence that civil society is coping well enough by itself for his government to continue dismantling state support mechanisms.


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