How many sessions on the Big Society does it take to fill a conference?

One of the many joys of the Big Society is the lovely way it lends itself to any number of sets of paired opposites.  Today at the Social Policy Association Conference, I listened to 

I’ve been trying hard to break out of my quantitative box (see yesterday’s post) and I think by the time I heard Naughton-Doe speak at the end of the day I may have finally managed it.  She presented the first part of her PhD research along with her Masters dissertation.  It was a fascinating investigation of what, to me at least, is a new kind of time banking.  (Ruth – if I misrepresent you here, do please shout at me.) 

For those not in the know, time banking is a scheme which allows members to donate their time directly to others (perhaps they do an hours’ dog walking) and receive time credits in return, which can be ‘spent’ on services from other scheme members (perhaps an hour’s web design).  Time banking generally operates person-to-person, usually with a broker in between, but Naughton-Doe has been looking at person-to-agency time banking.

Person-to-agency time banking allows participants to earn credits through their participation in the agency’s activities.  The credits are usually in the form of gift vouchers, cinema tickets etc.  In this case study, she looked at a person-to-agency time bank run within a halfway house/homeless hostel.  The residents could earn credits by cleaning, running barbeques and other ‘household’ activities.  Skipping the theory for a moment (and if you’re interested, it’s based broadly on co-production) does this sound like a plausibly useful scheme?  The cynic in me lowers my eyes and shuffles off muttering about reward charts for two year olds…  And lo!  Naughton-Doe feeds my inner cynic by introducing the concept of the token economy, which is essentially a discredited 1970s idea which boils down to reward charts for adults living in institutions.

I think this paper was pleasing for a number of reasons.  First up, it had a clear and well presented story.  (I occasionally think that conference presenters would do well to go back to writing a beginning, a middle and an end…)  It began hopefully, with a new scheme designed to empower service users, before letting us into the (incredibly difficult) circumstances in the hostel to reveal the many ways in which it failed.  Then, the scheme was placed in its broader policy context: it is a quasi-token economy being run by a business and used as part of a marketing strategy for leisure providers.  Finally, Naughton-Doe offered us a dystopian vision of the future.  Providers (see p.27 of the Giving White Paper for a case study of this approach) will receive £400,000 to pilot person-agency time banking.  The token economy is alive and well and coming to a community near you – soon.

Even so, I did succomb to a little quantitative thinking, I’m afraid.  Naughton-Doe was visiting the hostel three times a week for six months.  Guess how many time credits she found had been spent.  Go on, guess.  OK, I’ll tell you.  It was nine.  A (quantifiable) failure.

This feeds nicely into one of my endless niggles about the definition of volunteering: in general, volunteering is defined as unpaid work.  So what I want to know is: how many incentives does it take to make a pay-packet?  But that’s a subject for another day.

Edit: I have since found another ‘Big Society’ pairing, lurking in my blogroll.  Writing for the VAHS blog, George Campbell Gosling gives us prescription vs. description.

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