For such as time as this….

Heather Buckingham

thu 12 picture

In this post I want to come back to the question I finished with on Tuesday: why aren’t we making more fuss about it?

The third sector has changed a great deal in the past twenty years or so. Under New Labour the sector’s income from governmental sources increased significantly; third sector involvement in contractual arrangements for public service provision became widespread; and competition, quality assurance, outcomes monitoring and cost efficiency all became increasingly prominent within the sector (or at least substantial parts of it).

Institutional isomorphism describes the way in which organisations become more like those that fund or have influence over them, either through coercion, mimicry, or due to normative pressures. For many third sector organisations (TSOs) that are involved in government contracts, the influence of marketisation in the statutory sector has had an impact on their own decision making and working practices.

Whilst New Labour emphasised both the service delivery and community-building roles of TSOs, retrospective analyses suggest that service delivery was the main focus of their policy-making and funding towards the sector. Whilst this may have been an effective way of delivering public services, at least for a time, it leaves us with some more difficult questions about the role of the third sector in a context where funding for these is declining rapidly.

Concerns have been raised that the emphasis on service delivery – and the consequent significance of government funding as an income source for the third sector – has led to the silencing of TSOs’ campaigning voices. Earlier this year The Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector reported that self-censorship in the interests of survival was becoming problematic: individuals were afraid to speak out against the government for fear their organisations will have funding withdrawn.

But whilst government funding makes up a large proportion of the third sector’s total income, the majority of TSOs receive no funding from the state. According to data from the 2008 National Survey of Third Sector Organisations, only 36% of TSOs received government funding. This suggests that if TSOs are having difficulty articulating an independent voice and making it heard, other factors besides funding relationships are involved.

The third sector is sometimes touted as a repository for values. I don’t think this is a particularly helpful way of seeing things: values (good ones, and not so good ones) are found across all sectors of the economy and all aspects of public and private life. Similarly, tensions between personal values and organizational practices are reported in a whole range of professions and contexts. However, the expression of values has been identified as a key function of voluntary organisations, and identifying and articulating them is essential to the voice or advocacy role that many of such organisations have. Indeed, for charities, governing documents enshrining their charitable objectives provide an alternative benchmark against which success can be measured, outside of those offered by the markets or the state.

One explanation then for why it can be difficult for TSOs to find their voice is the dominance of particular state and market ‘rationalities’ in the public sphere, to the exclusion of alternative systems of thinking and organizing. Whilst increasingly blurred inter-sectoral boundaries make it difficult to distinguish the different logics of the market, state and third sectors, this may be partly a consequence of the dominance of neoliberalism and the market values associated with it.

Victoria Lawson, a Geographer the University of Washington wrote in 2007: ‘We live in times defined by the relentless expansion of market relations into almost everything. This deepening of market relations is reaching into arenas where the social good should (but often does not) take precedent over profitability and the efficient operation of markets… arenas such as health care, elder care, support for the working poor, environmental protection, and education’.

This may represent an oversimplified view of marketisation: there are possibilities for resistance, as well as instances where markets are managed for social good. Nevertheless, Maurice Glasman argues that ‘Individualism and collectivism have run out of road because both neglect the social, society, the body politic, the place where intermediate institutions promote a good that is neither market nor state based.  They both dissolve relationships when we need to nurture them.

Many TSOs place a strong emphasis on fostering relationships. Indeed, some of the tensions around government contracts have concerned insufficient recognition of the relational dimension of care, and the focus on measurable outcomes. Many TSOs that have kept their distance from state funding place a strong emphasis on cultivating relationships, particularly through volunteer involvement.

According to the UK Civil Society Almanac 2012, ‘by the end of the spending review period 2015/16, the voluntary sector is forecast to lose £1.2 billion in government income each year, a cumulative total of £3.3 billion’. Besides having a major impact on the sector’s work, this could lead to a major shift, with grass-roots, volunteer-orientated groups growing in influence and remit. Faith groups in particular are picking up much of the labour in terms of responding to food poverty, for example, yet (with some exceptions) there seems to be less interest in what the beliefs held by such groups might offer to broader political and economic debates about wellbeing.  However, as the cracks in our existing market and state based systems for securing wellbeing become more apparent, it may be time for TSOs to find the confidence to offer solutions that don’t seem to make sense within these systems as they currently stand, but can instead help to reshape and re-order them, rebuilding and rebalancing relationships and priorities within what is presently a very uneven society. As a society we may need to make more time and space to listen to voices from the margins.

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