This is a long blog about government scrutinies, strategies and reviews of voluntary sector policy. I’ve done a quick summary here, also at the bottom, in case you just want the gist (and the badges). Otherwise, read on.
I had a throwaway conversation a while ago on twitter about ‘surviving’ various government reviews of the voluntary sector. Someone (maybe me, who can tell?) mentioned that we should get badges. This blog is about 50% an excuse to make those badges.
It is also a slightly delayed response to the announcement of a new Civil Society Strategy, due for release any minute now. Governments like a strategy; they set out the rhetorical parameters for its vision of the voluntary sector, whether that’s as a partner in service delivery or a means of diverting demand. The recent history of the sector is littered with them, and they provide a useful means of analysing the government-sector relationship, or at least what central government wants from that relationship.
I’ve picked two that I’ve been reading recently to reflect on here, before offering some thoughts on what to expect this year. The 1990 Efficiency Scrutiny was the first concerted effort to address the role of the voluntary sector in the long period of Conservative rule (one or two DHSS reports aside). The 2002 Cross Cutting Review was by no means the only sector-specific report of the New Labour era but this one is interesting in the way it captures continuity and emerging change in the relationship.* There are some seemingly easy bets, based on what’s passed with the current government, for what will be in the new strategy, but nothing is sure in this game, and its scope is still unclear.
The 1990 Efficiency Scrutiny
The Efficiency Scrutiny of Government Funding of the Voluntary Sector,(1,2) set up in 1989 by the Home Office and producing its first report in 1990, is cited as heralding a ‘dramatic shift’ for the voluntary sector.(3) This report was the first from government after a long period of relative neglect, and tied into a wider agenda of maximising ‘efficiency’ in government spending, in the context of a ‘New Right’ vision of society and welfare provision, including a withdrawal from direct delivery.
The key theme is ‘instrumentalism’. The sector is described as an enactor of government policy – organisations are encouraged to play their part in delivering public services, as per the ongoing Thatcherite reforms – but that’s it. Their own agendas are not considered, and they do not have a role in forming that policy.
It is not all about services. Volunteering is noted as a welcome activity in its own right, as well as for its perceived contribution to reducing the burden on the state.(4) However its description of the sector in the majority of the report, and certainly the focus of its over 100 recommendations was, as Colin Rochester puts it, ‘nakedly instrumental’.(5) ‘Virtues’ of voluntary action espoused by the Home Office include organisations’ ability to get close to the ‘customer’; to be innovative and able to respond to new needs; to work in a wide range of fields; and to operate at less cost than government. Departments were recommended to look at how voluntary organisations ‘might be able to contribute in key policy areas – if necessary at the expense of other work, grants or schemes which have less priority’. It found that ‘core funding is a cost effective way of supporting voluntary activity’, but that grants needed to be properly managed, with provisions for ending grants ‘if a body stops being effective and improvements cannot be achieved’. Departments and local authorities should, however, be looking actively at the scope for ‘using voluntary bodies as agents to deliver services’. The report reiterates support for intermediary bodies, providing support to and representation of the voluntary sector at a national and local level. It advocated for continued core funding for these bodies, but also foreshadowed developments in future decades by suggesting services might be marketized and shifted towards a demand-led model, even exploring (although at this time dismissing) the idea of giving grants to voluntary organisations to purchase services directly.(1)
It was prescriptive on party political campaigning, stating that ‘no aspect of the activity should be party political in intention, use or presentation’. It was more gentle on other types of campaigning, stating that it ‘may form a legitimate and valuable part of the voluntary sector’s activities’, and even ‘that in some cases it may be worthwhile for government to fund such activities.’ It explicitly did not recommend the introduction of a standard condition preventing funds from being used for campaign activities. However it also specified in the 1994 implementation progress report that the organisation’s more general view of priorities should be in line with that of government’s:
18.6 Departments should decide whether the organisation’s balance of activities is in line with their own priorities. If there is a serious mismatch between a Department’s view and the voluntary body’s view of the relative priority of the various activities it will not be appropriate to give core funding.(2)
Jane Lewis claims it was ‘clear’ that the Home Office was trying to exert more control over the sector through the Efficiency Scrutiny.(3) Osborne and McLaughlin summarise the relationship, reflected in practice, neatly; it was ‘structured so that government maintained control of the policy making process, with the role of the VCO sector being restricted to that of service agent’.(6) The Scrutiny sought to professionalise the sector, to enable it to deliver public services. It does not consider its capacity to do so, nor any potential for policy partnership.
The Role of the Voluntary and Community Sector in Service Delivery: A Cross Cutting Review
The Cross Cutting Review of 2002 included 42 recommendations and had partnership at its heart.(7) It involved nine working groups, including a cross-departmental ministerial steering group, a Treasury team, an official steering group and six thematic groups – research, developing the Compact, structures and funding flows, capacity, social and community enterprise, and service delivery – including high profile individuals and organisations from central government, local government and the great and the good of the voluntary sector.
The Review spends time discussing the ‘unique’ characteristics and contributions of the voluntary sector, including its perceived specialism, participative methods, independence, access to communities and flexibility outside of institutional constraints. As per the title, however, the central drive of this report is the voluntary sector’s role in service delivery. Partnership, innovation and even independence are all discussed in the context of how voluntary organisations can play their part in delivering local services, and how their capacity can be built to allow them to do so better. Strengths are framed, and built upon, in a way that retains government aims at the centre.
It shares some of the aims of the Efficiency Scrutiny, for sure, but the motives are expressed very differently. There is also a sense that the voluntary sector was very much along for the ride; this was not voluntary organisations being given responsibility or taking up slack, but working in partnership to develop better ways by which they themselves could play their part. In tone and language at least, this was a co-designed project, with shared responsibilities, and investment on both sides of money and staff.
In terms of practical results, the Cross Cutting Review created a government funding portal which still runs today (h/t Ben Wittenberg), created the FutureBuilders programme, the first round of which offered investment totalling £125 million over three years to organisations delivering services in target policy areas such as ‘health and social care, crime and social cohesion, in education and for children and young people’,(7) and laid the groundwork for major programmes around capacity building for the sector. It encouraged organisations to bid for full cost recovery, and departments to consider longer three-year funding periods. The report itself included a staffing structure, actions and deadlines for implementation of recommendations; there was a clear intention to demonstrate commitment, and to receive it in return.
However, while there was encouragement, there was no real requirement that voluntary organisations must be involved in the design and planning of services, and no clarity as to what involvement would look like. It can be seen as an early part of creating a ‘governable’ sector;(8) there was a clear expression of ‘shared values’, but also an assertion of the sector’s independence as a distinctive feature. The latter presented the sector as a-political, outside of party politics, while the ‘partnership’ thread brought it on board as an inherent part of reshaping policy and practice, namely through the expansion of competitive markets. There was an accompanying narrative around the transformation of the sector; authors note the government’s ‘expressed commitment’ to the ‘modernisation’ of the sector,(6) and the language of professionalisation, training and development, and best practice, which sought to homogenise and maximise the efficiency of the sector, according to ideological principles of service delivery that governed reforms of the time. This arguably represents an element of continuity of aim with the older Efficiency Scrutiny, albeit with clearly different methods and language at play.
What can we expect from the Civil Society Strategy?
There are a couple of government documents that can give us some rhetorical clues as to what might be in the new strategy. The Ministerial Statement doesn’t give much away, but there’s a rather important echo of Theresa May’s first speech as Prime Minister in the phrase ‘burning injustices’. The Government may not be doing anything much about tackling these (call me a cynic), but there’s clearly still an ambition to be rhetorically defined as ‘solving’ them – and the sector, by this account, is part of that, presumably within the confines of government-defined solutions. Partnership ‘within and between sectors and communities’ is mentioned in this context, as a means to ‘better mobilise resources and expertise’ – so no new money, but maybe a reconfiguration of existing support.
In keeping with older Conservative ideology, the statement suggests a very wide scope in terms of type of organisation, from ‘individuals, charities, youth organisations [presumably singled out because of government’s obsession with National Citizen Service] and communities’ to social enterprise, mission-led businesses, public service mutuals, and private sector and individual investors. Depending on your own personal definition of the sector, this broad sweep may be a concern, for others a boon. There might be a particular focus on encouraging private philanthropy, or rewarding ‘ethical capitalism’. Or we may simply see a repeat of commitments to developing social investment (yawn). The Government’s response to the House of Lords report Stronger Charities for a Stronger Society also suggests this will be a significant thread, stating it will ‘explore further opportunities to build stronger connections between businesses and charities.’
That response also mentions a big box on my bingo sheet – helping small charities get commissioned, and avoid exploitation by larger organisations. Action was promised on tackling barriers in the market for smaller groups some time ago – I suspect this is where the ideas may finally be presented. Related to this, there might be some interesting moral positioning of ‘big’ versus ‘small’, virtuous voluntary action versus the familiar tales of bad behaviour from big players.
Interestingly, the report says that ‘social value’, as defined by the Social Value Act, will also feature. Given the general lack of chat around this in recent years, I don’t quite believe this will go beyond a reaffirmation of its principles and an encouragement to follow best practice. Likewise the Compact. Digital skills get a mention, there might be something on data – perhaps we’ll see a re-e-enabling of the sector – and there is brief talk of joining up policy across Whitehall, a worthy ambition. There may be something on governance and the Charity Commission, but this may well all be saved for the levy consultation.
Sector voices have, understandably, advocated for their bit of the sector, whether small, social enterprise, community, funders or fundraising. They would also like to see more and better funding, and better positioning within government of sector issues. Both of these are unlikely. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to this new strategy, because it has been a comparably quiet time for the sector, and it would be nice to see what this government is thinking. Sector policy wonks will no doubt be quick off the mark in reacting to its content, and seeking to influence its final form. I shall make you all an appropriate badge.
*I also, in the interests of full disclosure, cannot find the 2005 HM Treasury report Exploring the Role of the Third Sector in Public Service Delivery and Reform. If you have a copy, hit me up.
(1) Home Office. Efficiency Scrutiny of Government Funding of the Voluntary Sector: Profiting from Partnership. Home Office 1990.
(2) Voluntary Services Unit. Efficiency Scrutiny of Government Funding of the Voluntary Sector: Implementation Report. Home Office 1994.
(3) Lewis J. ‘Reviewing the Relationship Between the Voluntary Sector and the State in Britain in the 1990s’. VOLUNTAS, 1999;10(3):255-270.
(4) Ware P, Todd MJ. ‘British Statutory Sector Partnerships with the Voluntary Sector’. The Social Policy Journal 2002 Sep 1,;1(3):5-20.
(5) Rochester C. Rediscovering Voluntary Action. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; 2013.
(6) Osborne SP, McLaughlin K. ‘The Cross-Cutting Review of the Voluntary Sector: Where Next for Local Government- Voluntary Sector Relationships?’ Regional Studies 2004 Jul 1, 38(5):571-582.
(7) HM Treasury. The Role of the Voluntary and Community Sector in Service Delivery: A Cross Cutting Review. 2002.
(8) Carmel E, Harlock J. ‘Instituting the ‘third sector’ as a governable terrain: partnership, procurement and performance in the UK’. Policy & Politics 2008 -04-01;36(2):155-171.