In the first of a series of articles on the future of the voluntary sector, published exclusively by Civil Society News in the lead up to a new book by Civil Exchange, Nicholas Deakin says the sector must fight to establish its own vision or risk becoming an arm of government.
The next decade could be a major turning point for the voluntary sector, not unlike the one 20 years ago that produced the report of the independent Commission on the Future of the Voluntary Sector, which I chaired.
Then, that report helped to promote a closer relationship with the state that continues to this day, which has encompassed both the delivery of public services and a recognition of the sector's role as a constructive critic of public policy.
Now, the voluntary sector risks declining over the next 10 years into a mere instrument of a shrunken state, voiceless and toothless, unless it seizes the agenda and creates its own vision.
The relationship between the voluntary sector and the state is being redefined by two key developments. First, the cuts in public expenditure remain a crucial factor in determining the sector’s present and future situation. The theme of “controlling” the public finances may be less prominent just now, perhaps because it clashes with the feel-good narrative essential for electoral purposes. But the process of cutting is not yet even half completed.
Second, linked but distinct, there is the overall state-shrinking agenda, which is now clearly in view. This is part opportunistic: the austerity regime provides convenient cover for the government to shed some functions and devolve others. But increasingly the driving force behind this agenda is ideological.
For civil society, these developments are visible in a push towards possessive individualism. The ideal is separate self-interested groupings pursuing individual agendas. Collective action to shape the political agenda is sternly discouraged, as seen in the government’s response to voluntary sector attempts to push back some of the starker consequences of austerity, such as in the case of foodbanks.
Instead, voluntary action is envisaged as a way to assemble resources that can be directed into safer channels. Philanthropy is diverted into fundraising for uncontroversial causes like medical and military charities, which can skim a little cream from the whiskers of finance capitalism’s fat cats. Volunteering is a means of sopping up some of the young marooned on the fringes of an increasingly insecure labour market.
On service delivery by the voluntary sector, the emphasis is increasingly on carrying out the tasks as defined by the centre – and becoming dependent on the private sector, its priorities and values.
And on advocacy, the crucial condition is that the voluntary sector should not be “political”. Campaigning is legitimate only when it fits the official agenda: not when it challenges the assumptions behind it. The consequence is that organisations increasingly hold back from contesting the limits of the restricted role that is being defined.
In all these ways, the government is crafting a space for the voluntary sector – one in which those responsibilities that the state no longer intends to discharge are handed down, on the administration’s terms.
The question for the sector is whether it is prepared to accept this role. Whichever government is elected next year, there is a pressing need to define a positive concept of voluntary action. This is behind recent speculation on the possibility of repeating the 1996 Commission on the Future of the Voluntary Sector, which produced the Compact.
Some elements of an alternative vision for the sector can be anticipated:
- The sector needs to be pluralist, collaborative, seeking new allies and reinforcing links with older ones, and it needs to be sensitive to local differences.
- Local voluntary groups could be entrusted with executive responsibilities and resources to implement their own agendas, in partnership with others.
- The sector needs to be able to challenge authority without fear of retaliation. If the Compact is beyond resuscitation, alternative safeguards are needed.
- Embrace the extension to campaigning provided by social media to promote citizen involvement in building alternative approaches to policy challenges.
Others would bring different concerns and visions. Fitting these together would be demanding, but whatever government is in power from May the sector will need to be clear about its priorities. The need is urgent if it is to address both the causes and the consequences of the rise in political, social and economic inequality.
Nicholas Deakin CBE is emeritus professor of social policy at Birmingham University and was chair of the Commission on the Future of the Voluntary Sector which reported in 1996