The role of the state at least in terms of the organising, funding and delivery of public services will undoubtedly be a core issue in the current General Election.
The level of public spending and the future of public service provision is one of the principal dividing lines between the Conservative and Labour Parties, and these issues play a significant role in the programmes of the other parties.
Following her election the Prime Minister lauded her vision of the 'Shared Society' and even though the detail was thin it seemed to imply and rely on a reduced role for the state in terms of public services and an increased emphasis on personal or family responsibility with an increased if not defined role for charities and the wider voluntary and community sector (VCS).
At the time I blogged in HuffPost UK that a Shared Society had to offer hope, equality and social justice rather than fear, inequality and austerity - I also warned that charities and the VCS should be expected to step in where the state stepped back especially if there was no funding and no prior agreement. I believe that the arguments which I used then are as important now as we head towards the ballot on 8 June. Indeed they are probably more important now.
It is essential that charities and VCS organisations as national, local and community level engage with the election campaign. They have a duty to speak up for their beneficiaries and communities; to ask how the parties and candidates intend to offer hope and benefit for their beneficiaries and communities; and to propose how this benefit could be achieved.
Given that the wider political debate is likely to be about the role of the state as I have suggested it is critical that charities and VCS organisations as national, local and community level have coherent views on this question and in so doing are clear about their own role.
Charities and the VCS has many roles in the context of the consideration of the role of the state but I would argue the key ones are
- to facilitate and mobilise social action
- to advocate for their beneficiaries and their mission
- to seek to shape public policy in respect of issues that impact on their beneficiaries and their mission
- to deliver services when they deem that this is consistent with the interests of their beneficiaries and is consistent with their mission; and to do so either under contract or in partnership with the public sector or independently
- not to act as the surrogate or the substitute for the state; and not be compliant in the state being rowed back
Significant as charities and the VCS is in delivering and organising public services, their role in most public services remains small proportionate to overall activity. For some services and for some user groups charities and VCS may be better equipped than the public and the business sectors. This is a positive. In other services it would be inappropriate for them to be involved and such involvement may prejudice their ability to represent and advocate for their beneficiaries. In some service areas charities and the VCS will be best at innovation with the aim of the persuading others to take forward and scale up such innovation; and in some they will augment public provision with some specialist and 'added value' activities.
Consequently many charities and VCS organisations should and do argue for high level of effective public expenditure and for quality public services. They will not wish to see a government elected committed to reduced levels or even the abolition of critical services. They will wish to argue for improvements and the highest quality and for new services to meet unmet needs. They should be seeking to see commitments based on these objectives firmly in party manifestos.
Some charities and VCS organisations will wish to shape the nature and language of the political discourse as it impacts on their beneficiaries and communities - for example avoiding racist or other forms of derogatory language. They will want to challenge whenever such language or associate behaviours emerge.
Consequently there are many reasons why charities and the VCS at national and local level have to use the next few weeks to question and offer ideas to the political parties and local candidates.
Unless the sees as charity and VCS sector defines and advocates clearly what it believes the roles of the state and its own sector, and their relationship there is a real risk that they will wake up on 9th June and find that they are boxed in with a Government claiming a mandate that it at variance with the interest of beneficiaries. This would represent a failure by the sector and its individual organisations.