Paul Streets: Social change has the power to make a difference to real lives

25 Apr 2017 Voices

Paul Streets says that the voluntary sector needs to return to the values which differentiate it from the private and public sectors, and reconnect with its campaigning roots.

Small charities tell me too that too often our thinking on social change starts from the wrong end.  A debate about rights, equity and justice. And we move directly from that to engage with the political process. Of course, rights, equality, justice, politics and power are crucial to social change. But, at our best, we start with individuals facing problems and challenges and we listen, we listen hard and by listening we see things that others don’t.

We have industrialised provision. Services are organised in much the same way as production lines. The hospital is the example par excellence. It is designed in and around professionals and their disciplines. We pass patients, like vehicles on a production line, from one team to the next. And as with most public services, people are done too, not with. Largely speaking, the aim of the welfare state is equity and conformity.

One size fits all.

And it works for most of us.  But it fails in our approach to services for the minority who are the most marginalised, vulnerable, largely disenfranchised and powerless – where our approach seems to be unremittingly top down – with the voices of those on the receiving end neither seen nor heard.

What good small charities do and how they work shows us a new way of thinking about services and how to reach people. They don’t start with the service and try and design that through the eyes of professionals, experts or Government officials in Town Halls and Whitehall. They start with the person – and build a relationship to establish trust. 

And because trust is about relationships it needs to start with something that is intimate, immediate and familiar.  And it works.  At their best, they put the person who comes through the door back in control over – at least a part of – their lives.

The problem with the current approach of government and statutory bodies to these organisations is that it transfers a set of logic that works for dustbins, roads, hospitals and schools – provided to everyone – where standards can be set, metrics agreed and performance managed to these small local committed providers.

If small local organisations need to put trust at the heart of their own service, we need also to trust them to know what’s best. That means accepting that defining a contract with outcomes – and determining what activities to fund at the centre – simply won’t work. We need what Locality has called funding for ‘purpose’. And for organisations where trust lies at their heart it should mean a presumption that local is critical and that small is probably best.

So, if it means public services need to adopt a different approach what about us? The voluntary sector.

Our role as social changers has never been more crucial. Yet in the headlong rush for growth some of us have bought into a state vision of social change as articulated in the contracts it would have us take. Swapping the voices of those we reach – for the voices of those who commission us to reach them and determining need on the basis of what they are prepared to pay.

In so doing we have effectively become co-opted – as delivery agents of the state – rather than agents of social change. It feels like dangerous territory.

We need to return to the values and ethos that differentiate us from the private and public sectors. And that means not aping their top down or market driven approaches – either with respect to those we wish to serve – or with respect to our fellow charities.  The greatest anguish from many of the small charities we support comes when they are on the sharp end of competitive and pricing practices from larger charities.

As a sector we need to reconnect with our campaigning roots and focus on the lives of people who need us to be their champion. And that means connecting local action with national advocacy.  There are great examples of organisations that do this brilliantly, like Amnesty with its local groups and action networks and membership organisations like Mind and Women’s Aid.

In them we reach a recognition of what has probably always been true. Politics and power matter. But real social change happens bottom up and it happens to real people. 

Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Foundation

This blog was originally written for the think tank Civil Exchange, as part of a programme of work around its report, A Shared Society? The independence of the voluntary sector in 2017

Extracts from a speech by Paul Streets at the Directory of Social Change, 23 February 2017.


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