The voluntary and community sector faces unprecedented challenges.
These challenges are deep and very significant including the withdrawal of public funding, political attacks, and increased demand for services (especially as a result of cuts to public services and the impact of austerity).
However, the need for the sector to be on top of its game, especially the community sector and associated local community voluntary social action, has perhaps never been greater since the creation of the 'welfare state'. I believe that this 'need' offers the sector a huge opportunity but equally, places a massive responsibility on its shoulders.
The voluntary and community sector, and especially the community section of it, have always taken on a number of complementary but different roles. They offer voice for communities including some of the most vulnerable, marginalised and disadvantaged communities. They often represent these communities and speak up for them with public agencies and others. They provide services, both formal and informal, sometimes through contracts let by the public sector but in most cases through their own initiatives and using their own resources. Above all, they can and often do contribute to building community resilience.
I have never believed that the voluntary and community sector should be regarded as primarily a service provider, and most certainly it is not and should not be perceived of as an 'agent' of the public sector, always ready and willing to take over services which hitherto have been publicly funded, or to take on public service contracts which are neither financially sound or aligned to mission.
When the sector is invited to consider delivering public services on behalf of the public sector, it must have both the confidence and facts/data which will enable it to argue for: contract terms and prices that are sustainable; services that are compatible with its missions, and what users want and need; allow for innovation and responsiveness to users and communities; and enable the sector to be an exemplar employer. If these terms are not available, there has to be a willingness and confidence to walk away and say 'no, thank you'!
Increasingly and much too often, I find myself witnessing local and national politicians as well as public sector officials, seemingly appearing to consider the voluntary and community sector as principally being there to do their bidding and on their terms. This is wrong - it has to be challenged, and it has to stop.
The voluntary and community sector needs the confidence to re-state its role as the heart of civil society, which is neither part of the market nor of the state. It has to be ready to defend its independence from the state. It has to be willing to challenge and oppose government policy and wider public sector policy and practice when this is damaging for communities, society and the sector's beneficiaries. It has to able and prepared to advocate alternative policies and practices. And in my opinion, this has to include challenging where necessary the underlying macro-level policies and the ideology on which these are based. It has to make the case for the complementarity of a strong state and a strong civil society.
All of this requires the voluntary and community sector to be very confident. It also requires effective and bold leadership at national and local level. Ideally, the sector should be able to draw on evidence from its own work and the people it works with to support campaigning and other interventions into government, the wider public sector, the media and political debate. This is not new, and many organisations across the voluntary and community sector are and have been doing this for decades and indeed, in some cases, centuries.
I also strongly believe that when the sector makes such interventions, it should always do so on the basis of what is best for beneficiaries and communities rather than what is most attractive for the sector's institutions, structures, staff or even trustees. Of course, the sector is right to make the case for a stronger independent sector and the environment which the sector can thrive but even this can be done in the context of arguing the benefits for communities and beneficiaries.
The current challenges and ever-evolving environment in which the voluntary and community sector operates also requires the sector to change. It cannot ever return to some 'golden age of perfection', which in reality almost certainly never existed. Rather, the sector must modernise or 'wither on the vine'. It must find new forms of funding, as well as press for more public sector support. And it has to work in new ways: it has to embrace social media and wider IT/ICT developments; it has to become more participatory and accountable; and it has to recognise that the old geographies of everything being based around individual local authority boundaries are over. In particular, it has to come to terms (as it probably always has done) - with the fact that there will always be an on-going asymmetry of public governance and public provision across the country.
And, as the sector changes, its national bodies must change too. They must: provide voice; campaign; challenge government and advocate progressive alternative policies; broker and share good practice between their members and localities; and support but also challenge their members to evolve and face up to contemporary realities.
Across the political parties in England, there is much talk of 'localism and de-centralisation'. Local and national voluntary and community sector organisations need to involve themselves in this debate, arguing passionately for civil society's role and that of communities in any meaningful 'localism'. They should be advocating 'double devolution', and community empowerment and participation. And they should be making the case for progressive taxation and redistribution between and within places enabling both strong local public services and a strong civil society to enable 'localism' to flourish in an equitable manner.
Quite simply, the 'localism and decentralisation' debate is one that the sector can never consider opting out off. Equally, it cannot and should not consider opting out of debates on the future of the 'welfare state', social security, housing, the NHS, education, crime and social justice or any other key public policy area. Of course, some politicians and some parts of the media will say that this is not the role for the voluntary and community sector. As will be evident to the reader, I disagree. The sector must have the confidence to reject such attempts to bully or silence it. Just think how many major social reforms would never have happened if our predecessors in the sector had been too timid or ashamed to speak up.
I have recently attended the National Association for Voluntary Community Action (NAVCA) chief officers' conference in my capacity as a vice-chair of NAVCA. I detect that many but not all in the sector fundamentally have the necessary confidence. Those that do not should attempt to find what is usually an inherent sector sense of purpose and the confidence that can flow from this. And all in the sector need jointly and individually to express this confidence with much more force, passion and vigour than they may be customary too.
The stakes are too high for the voluntary and especially the community sector to fail to respond to the immediate challenges. We must embrace change ourselves - just as we demand change of others, especially government.