Never gonna give you up: the perpetual courtship of central government and the voluntary sector

Last week the Government announced that it will create a new policy unit to ‘improve relations with charities, faith organisations and businesses’, based at Number 10. Details have yet to emerge on exactly what this means, but the sector seem fairly optimistic about its prospects, and its potential for ‘resetting the relationship’ between Government and the sector.

For nerds like me it’s exciting, because it is yet another in a long line of offices and units established to improve the sector-state relationship. It gives us an excuse to look back to previous incarnations and think about what, if anything, they achieved, and to imagine where this one might take this sometimes tortuous relationship.

As with so much else, my interest begins in the 1970s with the establishment under the Conservative Government of the Voluntary Services Unit (VSU) in 1972. The Wolfenden Committee report on the future of voluntary organisations (1978) describes its four main functions: acting as a link between voluntary organisations and government departments, providing a focal point for Whitehall when troubled with voluntary sector issues, encouraging cooperation between voluntary organisations and acting as a ‘financier of last resort’ or a funder of ‘innovatory’ projects in areas of high social need.

This is a wide brief, although in practice there is limited information available about the day-to-day operations and ways of working of the Unit. This is in part because the various government departments involved appear to be juggling the historical data between them; my latest FOI came back with the news that, while some of the files had been sent to the Department for Communities and Local Government, others were still in the Home Office, and neither party knew who had what. I guess I will just have to wait.

My data woes aside, there are some interesting comments in contemporary literature and historical analysis of the Unit. The Wolfenden Committee very much welcomed the establishment of the VSU, but recognised some of its challenges:

We know that its officers are, so to speak, walking several tight-ropes at once. They must not dictate to the voluntary sector: yet each of their decisions will be taken as an indication of official policy. They must not lay down hard-and-fast criteria for their support of the voluntary sector: yet they cannot support an indiscriminate free-for-all.

The final tension, around which bits of the voluntary sector should get support, is interesting in terms of debates around the control and influence of Government over the sector. Stephen Hatch, writing in 1980, attributes the growth in the number of voluntary organisations in part to the government policy of promoting voluntary action through this unit. Colin Rochester’s historical analysis suggests that there was a dual purpose at play; promoting voluntary action at a local level, but also promoting mergers between organisations to ‘rationalise’ activity. It would be interesting to see more on the extent to which the Unit’s grants programme was trying to shape the voluntary sector, and whether it could be considered successful.

The grants themselves totalled £4.6 million in 1976/77 according to Ralph Kramer – a fairly small percentage of the £35.4 million spend across government departments on voluntary sector grants that year. Indeed, he says that the VSU had more of ‘a liaison rather than a coordinative function, providing some interdepartmental linkages’. This suggests more of a limited role for the Unit overall. Jeremy Kendall and Martin Knapp reflect on this ten years later as well. While they recognise the symbolic importance of the Unit, and even applaud it as ‘an enclave of voluntary sector understanding within central government’, they suggest that its resource base is ‘tokenistic’. They also see its reach within government as limited; ‘while it claims to coordinate government policy, the VSU’s influence within government has been very limited, since other departments have been reluctant to accept “interference” in what they perceive to be their own internal responsibilities.’ William Plowden, writing about the background to the introduction of the Compact under New Labour, adds that ‘a VSU would need to be extremely effectively led at bureaucratic level and strongly supported at political level for its point of view to prevail over that of other departments. The VSU did not usually meet either of these tests’. There is, perhaps, a lesson in here about not expecting too much from such units, although I wouldn’t want to pre-judge the nature and scope of the emerging one too early.

The VSU was eventually rebranded as the Active Communities Unit (and Directorate), the Civil Renewal Unit, the Office of the Third Sector (re-located to the Cabinet Office), and finally the Office for Civil Society. Pete Alcock notes how these changing titles mirror, to some extent, the developing policy discourses around the sector, and the changing and expanding role voluntary organisations were seen to play in society and service delivery. It is interesting to note the working title reported in the trade press of the new policy unit, including reference to ‘charities, faith organisations and businesses’. This suggests that charities might be seen in an even wider context again.

Alcock has also written an excellent description of institutional change during the early 2000s which I recommend reading. He notes that there is an argument about whether the establishment of these types of units serve to create a sector as a distinct entity, constituted as ‘a ‘governable terrain’ and therefore a site for policy intervention and, potentially, control’. As with the VSU, I think this is an interesting area of exploration, and something to think about as this new unit develops; to what extent is it trying to shape the sector in a way that serves its needs? Does that impact on charities’ independence? To what extent would, or could, charities and sector leaders challenge or influence the intended direction?

The Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson MP, has been notably absent from a lot of the voluntary sector world since he took up post. The fact that this new unit will be at Number 10 does suggest some kind of renewed focus, which certainly could be useful. As ever, we will have to wait to see the detail.

If you’re interested in looking in more detail at this subject, or have any interesting further research to show me, get in touch!

(And here’s the Rick Astley video because I know it’s stuck in your head now.)

Image result for rick astley gif

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