For some years now, I have been involved in efforts to augment the transport available for people in the Sherborne area (above all, in the villages surrounding Sherborne) to and from hospital.
As the number of patients who are sent to specialist centres a long way from home increases (due to the increasing effectiveness of specialised medicine), this can cause real problems for people who do not have or are too ill to use their own cars but who do not qualify for the provision of official hospital transport.
As I have mentioned in this column previously, this problem is particularly acute for people who live in relatively remote rural locations rather than in the town itself – since the admirable Sherborne Good Neighbours scheme provides transport only for those from within the town itself.
Talking to people in the Sherborne area about this, I am increasingly convinced that there is the enthusiasm needed to take the project forward – and I was delighted, the other evening, to find myself at a meeting in the Digby Hall, up by the library, discussing the way forward with a sizeable number of people who had gathered for that very purpose.
There are many practical issues still to be finally resolved, and then there is, of course, the question of whether there will be enough volunteers who are willing to do enough to make this a fully fledged and readily available service. But the will is clearly there, and the omens are good.
It struck me, while the meeting was going on, just how much these sorts of things (indeed any aspect of the Big Society) depend on the human dynamics. In the end, it is not usually the technical and financial issues that scupper these projects. If they come to grief, the cause is normally people falling out or becoming disenchanted – and, if they work, it is usually because the human beings in the middle of them are the sort of people who have the right combination of drive and charm to ensure that other people are happy to work with them and are pushed on to achieve great things.
It is the balance between the drive and the charm that is difficult to achieve. Too much charm and too little drive, and you are quickly into an endless series of delightful discussions that get you nowhere at all. Too little drive and too little charm, and all the volunteers are scared away long before the project comes to fruition. But get the balance right, and the volunteer army will march forward with as much gusto and energy as any paid workforce – and, often enough, with more speed, flexibility and imagination than most managers can obtain from a paid workforce.
So my conclusion is that the Big Society depends in great part on big people – natural leaders who know how to combine charm and drive in the right quantities on the right occasions. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why it is often those with a military background who play such a major role in successful community organisations.