Friday, May 6, 2011

My piece in this week's Third Sector on the need for soc ent to take over state services

I go to a lot of sector events these days where nearly everyone, even quite sensible people, are banging away about how the coalition is taking us to hell in a handcart. Amid redundancies, closures, vital projects lost and more redundancies, I can understand this. To a point. But some perspective is needed here. Blaming the coalition is to seriously misread the issue.

Two things need pointing out. First, this was coming. As a sector, we had been pumped up by 15 years of uninterrupted economic growth, which left us deeply vulnerable to changes in the economic weather. And by 2010, any new government knew it would immediately face two flashing red signals as it pulled out of the station - the economy and the runaway costs of the public sector. It is fantasy, in my view, to believe that charities wouldn't be getting an equivalent hammering with a fourth Labour government driving the train.

Second, the world is changing faster than many in the sector understand. Many people - most often my generation and above - forget that we are facing overdue structural changes in the way the UK addresses social need. They still see the 'voluntary sector' as a useful crack-filler for an all-embracing public sector. We're an 'and' solution, not a serious alternative.

That model is broken. The brutal truth is that, unless you're incredibly fortunate, you can't get a service from the state unless your problem comes in a box they recognise. Try being mentally ill and alcoholic. Learning-disabled and deaf. Or a perpetrator and a victim of crime. You'll find very little out there for you - except a bit in our sector, if you happen upon it.

The logic of a complex society is that we need a greater diversity of solutions for a population that has become far more multi-faceted than that of our grandparents' time: all sorts of organisations doing all sorts of things with all sorts of people.
We also need to support stuff that helps the sector's activities match up to need rather than being only, in effect, a supportive gesture. This can't be done 'in addition'. It needs cash that used to fund the state.

That is what we are, somewhat chaotically, moving to now. It's messy, it's difficult and it isn't helped by the economic situation or the lack of a proper plan from government. But underneath all of this there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for our sector to redefine itself as the first point of call for people in need.

And this should be the default position. Government grew as a provider when nobody was willing or able to take on that role. By the same logic, it needs now to revert to providing only where a civil society organisation cannot or will not do so. It can still plan, oversee and ensure a level field.

But one provider normally brings only one solution. The United Kingdom, in the 2010s, is not a one-solution society. A million flowers need to bloom. The price for this is a far smaller state than most readers of Third Sector are comfortable with.


Andrew McGuirk said...

Society Enterprise Mergers & Acquisitions Department here!

I like the points raised in this article.

What many people call a “Civil Society Apocalypse” was heading down the track like a juggernaut many years ago – especially so on Merseyside, where I am now based.

It’s often also the case that many people that I have encountered are also blind to the (need for) structural change : what has worked in the past IS NOT going to be “fit for purpose” in the future.

What’s wrong with justifying your existence and the “social impact” of the organisation that you lead / work with.

One point that could have been made though.

As a relatively new entrant to Civil Society – I’m a refugee from the world of investment and financial services – I’m sometimes amazed by the lack of value that individuals who are working within the sector attribute to themselves AND the sector.

With UK charity income standing at close to £52 billion a year (Charity Commission figures) and registered charity employees equating to some 850,000 individual (IGNORING voluntary staff), this sector has as much right (if not more – THINK social benefit) to stand equally with other industrial / professional / business sectors in the UK.

So yes, Civil Society needs to take on the provision of these services....

....and do a good job of it!

Edward Harkins said...

I was privileged to be at the Academy of Urbanism’s Annual Congress VI in Glasgow this week and to hear Lord Andrew Mawson’s talk on the achievements of genuinely community-led enterprise in Bromley-by-Bow, in London’s East End and other places. For the positive version of what can be achieved by social enterprise in public service delivery I think you couldn’t do much better than that.

He was nothing short of inspirational. I especially liked his description at one early meeting when ‘the senior social worker pulls out of her briefcase a huge encyclopedia with 1,000 reasons why nothing can ever happen in the world’ Advocates of co-production of public services should make a point referencing the Bromley-by-Bow exemplar.

The inspiration, charisma and aspiration was indeed inspiring. However, there followed a significantly and instructively contrasting presentation from Arie Voorburg of Arcadis, Arnhem, Holland on ‘financing social renewal’. His offering was at times technical, theory based and maybe even a bit baffling. His wonderfully self-deprecating opening was something like, ‘maybe I should just speak in my Dutch and you will understand it just as much’.

I was, nevertheless left wanting to go away and learn more about it all; especially on “multi-effect causality”. Having said all that I have maybe obscured his message which was that problems and opportunities are mostly not complicated; what complicates them are our approaches to them- especially when the approaches are dictated by professional or government agency interests.

All-in-all, I was pleasantly surprised to go to an event about ‘Urbanism’ and find that notions of enterprise and society were so central to much of the discussions and exchanges.