Many in the voluntary and community sector instinctively and ideologically reject the neo-liberal love of markets and competition, especially in public service delivery; and its consequential greater inequality and less social collectivism And many who work in the public sector as well as self-described 'progressive' politicians share this position. This is broadly understandable as they (actually, I should more accurately use the term, "we"), tend to be motivated in the main by values based on solidarity, sorority/fraternity, equity and equality, democracy and accessible service.
For all that, however, over several decades, public services discourse and practice have been increasingly dominated by the idea that markets will invariably deliver better outcomes for less expenditure, offer service users choice and avoid alleged public sector bureaucracy. These perceptions have steadily been gaining ground, and are now all too prevalent.
The irony is that the evidence of such outcomes and impact is often not at all obvious or is simply missing, and in many circumstances such evidence is, in fact, negative. However, despite this reality, politicians, senior executives and commentators, with increasing regularity, relentlessly assert that market solutions are preferable - and for many, this has become the accepted reality. Perplexingly, without evidence and an understanding of when and if market-based solutions may be appropriate and when they may not be, this onward march has continued - and this despite the reality that what might be appropriate (and in some cases even beneficial) for transactional back office support services, may in fact and often is not appropriate for services such as health care, criminal justice and education. Nonetheless, market-focused ideology drives ever onwards, brushing evidence aside, and often contaminating the values of those who claim not to support such ideology. It has to be challenged. The VCS can make this challenge.
However, increasingly, I find myself talking with voluntary and community sector (VCS) and public sector colleagues who express such 'modified' views, and who repeatedly use words associated with markets and competition. I recognise the need to be contemporary and having to work in policy environments that are not of their natural choosing. Of course, I also appreciate that the use of words and terminology is not, in and of itself, the same as accepting the ethos and ideology of those who genuinely enthuse about the concepts of market-based public services. However, regularly using such terminology, and apparently and implicitly accepting the policies and practices which they underpin without any questioning or challenge? To be honest, I think this is dangerous though I realise that some - a minority I believe - in the VCS are supporters of market based public services
In my experience, this is particularly the case in the VCS, which, I would have hoped, would more regularly be arguing for a social rather than a market-based approach. Surely, it is possible to argue for an alternative to competitively contracted public service provision whilst at the same time bidding for contracts if this is the only ways of securing services and funding. What then matters is for the VCS organisation to have the skills and competency to bid, contract and manage client-contractor relations; and for such organisations only to bid when the potential contracted service is aligned with their mission and values, and the commercial terms are sensible. Public sector leaders and professionals should understand the respect this approach.
So VCS organisations should bid when this the right thing to do but continue to argue for alternative and better approaches such as:
- less use of competitive procurement and contracting as the public sector default
- an evidence-based review of when and for what services such an approach may or may not be effective
- more collaboration between the public sector and the VCS, underpinned by grants and, where appropriate contracts, which allow the VCS to maintain its ethos and values
- high quality, responsive, publicly managed and publicly accountable public services
- public services which focus on outcomes for service users and the wider community
- public services where the relationship between provider, funder and user is relational rather than economic or market based
- equitable access to public services for all
- public services that address inequality, social immobility, discrimination and injustice
- transparency in performance and financial transactions for all public services, with democratic accountability, irrespective of who provides and who funds and/or commissions/procures them
An approach as outlined above will surely be consistent with the mission and values of most VCS organisations, large and small, and national or local; and indeed will complement many VCS organisations wider social missions for a fairer and more equal society and economic system.
The risk for too many VCS organisations and their colleagues in the public sector is that by swallowing wholesale the neo-liberal thesaurus, they find themselves unable or unwilling to challenge its basis and its consequences. In this way, the very values of the VCS and the complementary public service ethos are going to be increasingly at risk, with the even greater danger that service users and communities will be irrevocably damaged.
All of us - and I include myself - must choose our words with care, understand their meaning and just as importantly, better appreciate what the wider longer term implications may be if we use language that is actually drawn from the dictionary of a very different value set.