In his foreword to the NCVO 2015 General Election Manifesto: A bigger difference - realising the potential of voluntary organisations and volunteers - http://www.ncvo.org.uk/images/documents/policy_and_research/ncvo-manifesto-2015.pdf - Sir Stuart Etherington, CEO of NCVO writes:
"Amid so much change, the resilience and energy of our communities has held firm. Everywhere we see volunteers and community groups, and charities large and small, taking an active role in addressing problems, bringing people together, and campaigning for what people want. They are already actively building a more civil society and a more social economy.
NCVO believes that voluntary organisations and the volunteer movement are at the heart of the society that people want to live in. We believe that a powerful volunteer movement and a modern voluntary sector focused on impact have even more potential to help solve the country's most pressing problems."
Sir Stuart is right to make the case for a strong civil society with a strong and effective voluntary sector at its core. He is equally right in stressing the importance of local voluntary and community groups and local social action in offering 'voice' to communities and building resilience. The last few years of austerity, public expenditure cuts, 'welfare reform', increasing poverty and inequalities have certainly demonstrated why community resilience is so vital, especially within the most disadvantaged communities and neighbourhoods. The voluntary and community sector have, generally, risen to the challenge, often in spite of cuts to funding and ever increasing demands for their services. Food banks are a great example of this.
Sir Stuart goes on to say that it is time for government and the voluntary sector to work together to find and implement solutions. That is the right approach.
It is good to see NCVO and the wider voluntary and community sector willing to enter the political arena and set out a coherent set of policies in advance of the political parties finalising their manifestos.
Taken altogether, there is much to welcome in this manifesto and it is to be hoped that the major political parties will take it seriously and adopt some, if not all, of its proposals.
In particular, the emphasis on early intervention and the role that the voluntary sector can play in preventing long-term social and health problems makes a great deal of sense. More early intervention is essential but so too is dealing with the results of years of neglect and a failure to adequately address long-term chronic problems.
The NCVO is absolutely right to call for better commissioning and procurement of public services, especially from the voluntary sector, and to challenge the idea that grant funding by the public sector should always be superseded by contracts. Social value and social capital must prevail in public procurement. And NCVO is right to argue for the Social Value Act to be enthusiastically enacted by all public bodies.
NCVO could have drawn attention to the problems that contracting based on payment by results and the Work Programme style prime-subcontractor model create for charities; and in the case of the Work Programme how it has failed the unemployed and tax payer too.
The manifesto draws attention to what the NCVO and many across the voluntary sector regard as disproportionate cuts to voluntary sector funding imposed by the public sector. And given the forecast public expenditure plans post-general election, this trend will only increase, especially as local government and the wider public sector seeks to protect statutory services. If there are to be cuts, the argument should be for the community and voluntary sector to be actively engaged in the public sector's strategic decision-making and commissioning processes. Where they are unavoidable, cuts should be planned and made in such a manner as to minimise the damage to vulnerable people and communities, rather than any particular sector.
That said, if the voluntary and community sector is to be able to fulfil its contribution to the maximum and step up to support services and people affected by the cuts, then it has to have the necessary wherewithal and capacity. If the cuts are deep and remove both capacity and resource for 'capacity-building' (including infrastructure support), then the sector's contribution can only be diminished.
The sector must speak out against unfair and damaging cuts too.
Of course it has to be remembered that the majority of charities receive no direct public funding but these charities are still often having to respond to cuts and austerity.
Equally the call for the right of the sector to campaign is sound. The Lobbying Act or, as some of us refer to it, the 'gagging act' should be repealed.
Charities should boldly advocate fundamental change
As the reader will be detect, I like much of the NCVO manifesto and I applaud the NCVO for publishing it in what is a very hostile political environment. However, I have three challenging criticisms, which as an active member and a friend of the sector, I feel obliged to make.
First: the manifesto focuses too much on the sector itself, rather than the sector's beneficiaries and communities. What ultimately matters is the quality of life and opportunities for them. Of course, a strong independent voluntary and community sector is vital for our democracy, our society, our economy and our environment, and the NCVO has a clear duty to make the case for the sector. However, NCVO is at its best when lobbying for beneficiaries and communities rather than too nakedly for itself or the sector - this is more than a presentational issue.
On a specific issue, the manifesto has missed a clear opportunity to call for a radical review of charity and related laws, and consequential regulation. The growth of the social sector (including community interest companies) has the clear potential to make a significant social impact, and just as much as many charities. This 'fact' has to be recognised and acknowledged by the charity sector.
Second: whilst it recognises that the sector is operating in very different political, economic, technological and social environments compared with only a few years ago, I wonder if the manifesto is strong enough on recognising the need for change and reform within the sector itself. There could (and in my view, should) be more challenge to the sector - whether it is in terms of the need for effective governance, transparency and accountability; or measurement of impact; or use of technology; or mergers, consortia and shared provision; or more. There should be a call for government to work with the sector to support some of this change and evolution.
Additionally, one of the sector's great strengths is its ability and legitimacy to act as a 'voice' on behalf of communities and marginalised groups. The manifesto should challenge the sector to speak out, just as much as it calls on government to accept that it has an unfettered right to do so.
Third: the manifesto seems to be have accepted much of the political/media establishment's apparent 'consensus' (or maybe, 'conspiracy') that there have to be more cuts to public expenditure, and that neo-liberal economic and market-based public service are a given.
I appreciate that NCVO (and the sector as a whole) has to be pragmatic and argue for what it thinks might be possible and achievable. However, I passionately believe that it also has to speak out and challenge orthodoxy and the 'establishment' wherever necessary. It has to be ready to address, analysis and challenge the causes of inequality, poverty, austerity and social disadvantage; and to argue for fundamental change - in effect, for a new, socially-based and socially just economy and society. The manifesto calls for both of these but unless the sector is willing to expose the underlying structures, systems and ideologies that create the current conditions, and unless it is willing to support radical alternative approaches, then it will never fully achieve its aims nor serve the long-term interests of its beneficiaries and its mission.
History shows that many of the greatest social reforms have come about when the voluntary sector has been ready and willing to garner its analytical and sometimes emotional force to drive others in power to cede or fundamentally alter that power.
The charity sector is at its best when it both campaigns and acts. Again, I would refer to the superb food bank programme, which is meeting a need but also exposing a flawed set of structural societal problems, policies and employment practices. The truth is that the sector can simultaneously provide food at the same time as demanding the living wage and a halt to the more abhorrent aspects of the 'welfare reform' programme.
The NCVO 2015 manifesto is to be welcomed. It has much good analysis and many sound proposals. My hope is that whatever party or parties form the government next May, their leaders immediately invite the voluntary and community sector to work with them to address immediate and longer term needs through fundamental reform based on a strong democratic, socially just, more equal, fairer and vibrant civil society. That, for me (and I suspect for vulnerable citizens and communities) would make the 'Big Difference' and perhaps the 'Real Big Society'!