Britain tries on a big heart in times of little cash

The Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, lays out a vision for his 'big society,' one in which people donate and volunteer more. Ideas range from donating at ATMs to eBay-style trading of volunteer work. Is this America's future?

In Britain, necessity has become the mother of good intentions.

With a fiscal crisis requiring radical cuts in government, Prime Minister David Cameron has advanced a radical remake of society. In a paper unveiled Dec. 26, his coalition laid out a vision to rally more people to donate time, money, and skills to community work and to charities.

It’s a bold and untested idea, being watching closely in the equally budget-challenged United States, despite a strong American tradition of volunteering and giving. Can social action become the social norm – and even a substitute for many government services?

Critics of Mr. Cameron’s “big society” agenda – which includes pushing power to local governments – doubt if public generosity can be ginned up quickly, or at all, before massive budget cuts hit in a few months. Only 8 percent of people account for about half of all giving in the UK.

But an equal cynicism has set in about the cold, distant, and often ineffective nature of a central government dispensing services.

“Too many people thought, ‘I’ve paid my taxes – the state will look after everything,’ ” said the prime minister, a Conservative who took office last spring in a coalition government. “But citizenship isn’t a transaction in which you put your taxes in and get your services out. It’s a relationship – you’re part of something bigger than you.”

The proposals in his so-called Giving Green Paper (a longer “white paper” is due in the spring) are certainly innovative, to say the least. Here are a few:

  • Let charities ask for a small donation every time someone uses a cash machine, uses a credit/debit card, or requests a government service such as a license.
  • Use an eBay-style website to trade one’s time – “microvolunteering” – for a comparable service by someone else.
  • Train 5,000 community organizers to build up neighborhood groups for social action.
  • Set up a “national community service” for 16-year-olds to hone their skills through volunteering.
  • Spend government money to match private donations to charities.
  • Honor particularly big givers on national TV – such as lottery winners who give away their money – thus inspiring others to contribute.
  • Provide incentives for businesses to let employees volunteer for good causes.

And the list goes on, like a catalog of social experiments.

Polls show people in the United Kingdom are more inclined to give money than their time to good causes (three-quarters give to charity while only about a quarter volunteer). Unfortunately, many charities are dependent on government for money. Cameron has proposed a special fund to wean them off this dole.

To turn government into the facilitator of giving, rather the giver, will take years. It is a cultural shift, bred of a financial crisis, but made easier by digital technology that can link people together and remind them of others’ needs. (About 58 percent of adults shop on the Internet, but only 7 percent of donors give money online.)

Shifting the care of society to more local and private control goes against the trend of the last century for bigger, more centralized government. But then that model has hardly solved social problems.

Britain’s grand experiment should be especially followed closely by America’s tea party movement, which pushes old-fashioned individualism. Cameron’s vision of “mutual responsibility” within a caring society better fits the trends of the 21st century.

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