Sir Stuart Etherington is concerned that the delivery of public services may eventually be limited to only a small number of large-scale providers, effectively creating a ‘fourth sector’.
Delivering his speech ‘The Future of Civil Society’ at York University last week, the NCVO CEO said that a consequence of large statutory contracts which involve sub-contractors and depend on competition could be that public service delivery will be limited to a small number of large-scale providers, with user involvement tokenistic – and that charities will be exploited by larger players.
He also outlined his fears that smaller charities are often not web-savvy enough to cope with modern technical demands, that dissent was being marginalised since advocacy is becoming increasingly hard to find, and that giving and philanthropy are too focused towards the wealthiest individuals, creating implications for democracy and accountability.
Sir Stuart also reiterated the widespread concern in the sector over the damaging effect of the government’s inconsistent messaging on the Big Society, as well as the perception amongst some that “the Big Society presents an agenda for a negative squeeze on funding combined with an increase in demand for services in the voluntary sector”.
It was not all doom and gloom, however, as Sir Stuart counteracted his more negative foreshadowing by stating that there are still grounds for optimism. “Government policy towards the sector remains supportive: there is a real desire amongst policy-makers to strengthen our culture of giving and philanthropy,” he said. “And it is worth mentioning that this is a resilient culture, one that has not been easily shaken by recessions in the past.”
He continued: “Government is also trying to stimulate the social finance market, both in terms of the supply side and the demand side. So, incremental changes to tax and regulation will, I hope, increase the flow of social capital into the sector, whilst support for voluntary organisations to be investment ready will help us engage with this agenda.”
Sir Stuart also believes that there is a genuine commitment on the part of government to open up public services that will involve users and in turn create opportunities for the sector to transform those services, both from the user experience perspective and from the taxpayers’ perspective.