The National Coalition for Independent Action (NCIA) began in February 2006. As part of a discussion between Penny Waterhouse and Andy Benson who had worked in and with voluntary groups since the 1970s. We both had diverse backgrounds: in voluntary services; in advocacy and rights; in campaigning, organising and direct action; in community development; and in management, service development and strategy.
We saw a change in voluntary action across our worlds: business practices and bureaucratic cultures were taking the place of principled and political purpose, collective action and community needs. We saw a change in wider social and economic policies: from social protections, collective rights and redistributive policies towards the hegemony of markets and business models, competition and privatisation, and individualism over a culture of collective social responsibility. We could see that the historic job of holding the State to account, and offering an alternative to the state and the market, was increasingly resting on the shoulders of those directly disadvantaged by these damaging policies. These people had few resources and little help from charities, whose professed interests were precisely in these people as ‘beneficiaries’.
We decided to take time off paid work and see if others saw the same picture, and whether there was any interest in doing something about it. The answer was “yes”, so we got going.
What we became
NCIA grew as a widening network of individual personal connections. People who could see that the autonomy of voluntary organisations – to take independent action, to pursue divergent interests, and become actively involved in dissent – was in jeopardy from widespread co-option into government and state agendas. We believed that this co-option would erode and undermine civil society, our political health, and the capacity of communities to get what they need for themselves.
We never intended to be a government lobby group. The NCIA job was to encourage, cajole and support civil society groups to do this. Our core constituency was people involved in voluntary action, whether as trustees or staff of charities, volunteers within voluntary and community groups, or as activists and campaigners fighting for a better world. We aimed to provide a network of activities and contacts that offered a ‘safe’ place for people who shared our concerns and our perspectives. To support that network we provided regular information, position papers and case studies, conducted local and national research studies, and in various pro- and re-active ways issued a vocal and plainly spoken challenge to the people and organisations responsible for the damage we saw around us.
All of this was intended to encourage, as practically as we could, community groups, voluntary services and umbrella groups to resist their incorporation and the emasculation that often accompanied it.
Though NCIA’s stance was essentially concerned with the need to defend the whole terrain of citizen action (or ‘ungoverned space’ as we called it), our support was especially directed to those working to advance social justice; equality; liberty; conviviality; freedom from want; enfranchisement; and environmental sustainability.We were particularly interested in local action which can make a material difference to the conditions of daily life.
We believed in public services run by publicly accountable institutions. We saw the role of voluntary services to complement, challenge and test out new ways of meeting need: not to take the place of public services. We opposed the privatisation of public services whether into the private sector or through voluntary services.
We asserted the right to dissent, as part of a healthy democratic society. The willingness to engage in dissent is required to fight injustice, to challenge powerful interests and to push for alternatives. Dissent is particularly required when consensus, collaboration and negotiation has failed and where the stakes are high for individuals and communities. Without this willingness and capacity, the democratic role of civil, and uncivil, society is fundamentally undermined.
What we did
Our early work was during the time of the New Labour government (1997-2010) when voluntary services came to be seen as ‘preferred providers’ in outsourcing and the privatisation of public services. As part of this, the relationships between the state and the voluntary sector were re-defined to ensure that voluntary organisations were “fit for purpose” as a delivery mechanism for State agendas. Under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government (2010-2015), and currently the Conservative government (2015-), privatisation of public services, austerity and cuts, intensified and became more and more of a primary concern for our work. By this time it was clear that global corporations had become the preferred providers of cut-back privatised public services. We found that this presented another threat to the independence and integrity of voluntary groups: incorporation, as private sector sub-contractors, supporting the profiteering of these massive, often unethical, conglomerates.
At the same time, we strove to support and champion the many thousands of people involved in ‘below the radar’ community groups and, explicitly political, activist groups fighting for progressive social change. All of whom were struggling to cope with cuts to rights, services and living standards and the rising privation and demonisation of those affected.
We reckoned we had two inter-connected jobs. Firstly, to warn voluntary groups that they were losing their autonomy and becoming servants of the state, and then the private sector too. Secondly, to find individuals and groups who understood this and were ready to act, both to stop this slide into co-option and to oppose the damaging changes that were being pushed through. The first job involved gathering information on what was happening in voluntary action and at policy level, making sense of this by creating an analysis and critique, forming a response which would protect and affirm radical and oppositional independent action, and getting these messages out. Much of this work entailed collecting stories from the field, researching and writing on aspects of co-option; highlighting action which aimed to avoid co-option and assert the proper democratic role of voluntary action. In particular we focussed on:
- funding arrangements and relationships;
- commissioning, procurement and contracting practices;
- the drawing in of voluntary services to deliver public services;
- threats to small and medium sized voluntary groups embedded in their local communities;
- the rise of ‘managerialism’ and the parallel decline in working conditions within voluntary agencies;
- the largely supine and ineffective role of ‘leadership’ and infrastructure groups.
This element of our work cumulated in two NCIA Inquiries and the creation of two major initiatives alongside other partners:
- Here We Stand: An Inquiry into activism and dissent 2013
- Fight or Fright: An Inquiry into the future of voluntary services 2015
- Localism Watch, with Open Democracy 2014
- Keep Volunteering Voluntary, with Boycott Workfare 2014.
Our second job involved spreading our net as widely as possible to find allies, create relationships and connections, spark debate and above all: to form alliances for action. We used our existing connections to create further relationships. We developed the NCIA Assembly, which routinely brought together people and groups from across the country to share experiences, create understanding and identify action required. We took the initiative in putting on events with others at local, regional and national level. For example, we collaborated with the National Community Activists Network, the Trades Union Congress, London Voluntary Services Council, In Defence of Youth Work Campaign, AdviceUK, and others, bringing together people with varied interests and concerns. Within our resources, we tried to be responsive to approaches from others – either to speak at or put on events with others, to carry out joint work on matters of common concern or to join in problem solving on particular issues confronting an individual or their group. For example, early on, we carried out research in West Sussex with Adur Voluntary Action, recording the pressures on voluntary action in the area. This piece of work led to a long standing relationship with the organisation.
Our two interests did not create discrete tasks, but overlapping activities. For example, we attempted repeatedly to build alliances through local projects which aimed to bring people together on local issues, to identify their common concerns and any action they might take together. In this way, we hoped that individuals and groups taking voluntary action might create their own analysis and actions. Most of these projects – despite much preparation and project work – were unsuccessful. We found that, once NCIA withdrew, there were no local groups, continued interests, or funding, to support the endeavour over time. It became clear to us, through this and other work, how critical was the role of local and national umbrella and infrastructure groups: to host the debate, act as a clearing house for intelligence, and encourage collective action in the local area. It was here that we saw how deeply co-opted the voluntary sector had become: these groups – vital as a resource to support collective action – were too busy dancing to the agendas of local and central authorities, to notice or respond to the political drift around them.
Both aspects of our work required us to get our message into the field: in order to sound the alarm; and to gather people together. We used every method we could think of to do this: the voluntary sector media, the mainstream media, voluntary sector networks, NCIA connections and social media. Most of the time, our voice went unnoticed. And where we were acknowledged by the voluntary sector establishment we were mostly marginalised as a kind of ‘court jester’ – the person who can talk ‘off message’ but doesn’t have to be taken seriously. However, whilst the establishment ignored us or put us down, NCIA provided a safe haven, a form of relief, to those who shared our analysis and were directly affected by the erosion of self-determination, but who felt isolated by their experiences (see What they said about NCIA).
One of our continual internal debates and puzzles was how to express ourselves and present our message to the outside world. We were determined to be honest, forthright, and critical, where necessary. For those who agreed with and supported us this was a welcome relief, as no other groups in the voluntary sector seemed prepared to debate the issues in this way. However, in many quarters, particularly within the mainstream professional sector, NCIA was seen as uncompromising, overly critical and sharp tongued, and unrealistic or vague in its demands. In particular, it was said that we did not acknowledge how difficult it was for voluntary groups, especially professionalised service providers, to challenge government, statutory authorities and funders. And that we did not offer a “manifesto” for supporters to fall in behind: we did not tell people what they should do. Many in the sector felt compromised by our critique, rejected our style with defensiveness and, in the process, rejected our argument too.
There was also an ideological gap on the matter of privatising public services into the voluntary sector. A good number of those involved in running voluntary services were not averse to taking over responsibility for running public services – or at least thought that voluntary-run services would be better than privately-run services, and certainly were better than no service at all. The NCIA position – to protect publically-run services and oppose privatisation – was not always seen as a rallying call.
Looking back, we now understand that NCIA perspectives were trying to bridge two worlds – conventional and largely conservative, professionalised voluntary services and more radical political activism. We found ourselves straddling these two different cultures, without a common language to create understanding, let alone joint action.
How we worked
NCIA always functioned as a loose network. How we worked with each other – internally and externally – evolved over time. Structurally, three groups appeared. There was a core group of Directors who were responsible for the politics and the strategy (big and small), the money (always small) and getting the work done (always big). Directors were all involved in practical work as well as having strategic responsibilities. Special thanks are due to those who held NCIA together as Directors, and made many contributions outside of that role :
- Adrian Barritt
- Andy Benson
- Ruth Cohen
- Bernard Davies
- Ros Lucas
- Sue Robson
- Colin Rochester
- Laird Ryan
- Matt Scott
- Nazreen A Subhan
- Frances Sullivan
- Ruth Townsley
- Penny Waterhouse
- Laura Wirtz
and to a number of other significant individuals whose contribution to our work was vital:
- Melaina Barnes and Rachel McGill who filled the post of National Co-ordinator for two years
- Mike Aiken who handled our ‘transitions’ work in the last year of our operation
- Yorick Brown, our IT consultant, who kept our website running smoothly
- and the authors of the 18 papers that came from our Inquiry into the Future of Voluntary Services.
We used various mechanisms – a Planning Group and wider Assembly meetings for example – to involve other supporters in determining our work and our priorities and to share experiences. A supporters group of close allies, initially drawn from the NCIA Assembly and NCIA Planning Group, was built up through personal relationships and joint work. At the end, this group numbered about 260 and over the years were involved in debate, sharing ideas, practical work with NCIA; and offered solidarity, advice, intelligence and connections. There was also a wider mailing list of around 1500 contacts.
A striking characteristic of NCIA was the very different activities, approaches and perspectives reflected in our contacts: local and national voluntary and community groups, professional voluntary services, self-help and direct action groups, unions, academics, campaigners, consultants, managers, frontline staff, volunteers – as well as individuals working in public services. We began to realise that we had drawn around us a mix of “insiders” and “outsiders” and that an important role for NCIA was to act as broker across these worlds, to create, potentially, common bonds and collective action.
NCIA did not have a party line or a membership base. It was a loose affiliation of shifting connections dependent on particular issues and action. We worked on the basis that if people didn’t like what we were doing or saying, they would vote with their feet – and some did. The glue between us was a common concern and core beliefs about the nature of a just society and the job of voluntary and citizen action within that. Personal relationships, as well as shared ideologies, held us together. Apart from the legal responsibilities of the Director group there was no formal hierarchy or management structure. We were always aware of the “tyranny of structurelessness” and did our very best to avoid this, not always successfully. We were responsible for our own work, did our best to make the work successful, helped each other and were responsible for alerting each other to any problems and possible solutions to these.
NCIA – being out of step with the mainstream perspectives within the voluntary and community sector – always found it difficult to find funders willing to support our work. But for the generous and inspirational support from the Tudor Trust much of our work would have been impossible to achieve. And our thanks are also due to other funders – the Network for Social Action, Wainwright Trust, Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and AdviceUK – who offered financial support for specific small pieces of work. Always, however, the bulk of work undertaken under the NCIA banner has been done by many, many people freely offering their time, skills and experience. We are deeply grateful for their involvement. A good job too: numerous funding applications were turned down, so we gave up further thoughts of funded work.
We had only a few formal policies and procedures (such as handling money, or recruiting and paying people) but we did use managerial tools such as strategic and operational work plans, evaluation reviews, project proposals and job descriptions. One such document set out the basis for working together:
“We are not an organisation, but a loose network of people and agencies. We reject ‘business’ and ‘command-and-control’ models of working. Our approach is based on trust, the creation of mutual interests, and shifting alliances. We expect that we will disagree with each other, as well as find consensus. We do not manage or control each other, nor are we a collective with shared decision-making. We are light on our feet, with each free to work in ways that suit them and their context. We are organised and efficient through flexible non-bureaucratic ways of working. Each contributes what they can, and say no when they can’t.”
Why we stopped
As a matter of routine, we always asked ourselves: should we exist? In the latter part of 2014, we thought the answer might be no. So we decided to talk to our supporters, and others, about the current state of voluntary action, and what was needed for the future. We concluded that something was needed, but not us. At the end of 2015, NCIA closed as an organisation.
We stopped for two reasons. When we started, our message – that voluntary groups were in danger of losing their independence, that this is important and should be resisted – was seen as scare mongering, insignificant and way off beam. This message has now been accepted pretty well everywhere, with the consequences only too visible. We don’t need to make the case any longer. We have done our job and sounded the alarm. Nobody can say they have not been warned: charities work under contract to state and private sector bodies, muzzled from speaking out for fear of losing their funding, their ‘seat at the table’ or being in breach of the Lobbying Act. Our final report lays out the damage and danger to charities and voluntary groups in the UK today – Our Last Word: Fighting for the Soul of Voluntary Action.
We have tried to persuade mainstream voluntary services to defend their autonomy and speak out, with others, in pursuit of social justice, and against the erosion of our rights and the dismantling of our public services and civic spaces. Many have not responded to this call and have turned themselves into lookalike private businesses. Charities now compete aggressively for a share of privatised public services, and some form partnerships with profit-hungry global corporations on the back of zero-hours contracts. Whole workforces are being sacked and then re-employed on poorer terms and conditions. The new persona of charitable work has not been lost on the public either – trust has fallen and reputations damaged. Much of the sector has acquiesced to government pressure to back off from the campaigning work that opposes damaging policies. Indeed, most of the “representative” bodies actively conspire with privatisation and government agendas. Voluntary services now find themselves in a cul-de-sac of their own making.
In this context, we realise that we can’t rescue voluntary groups from the hostile world they now inhabit, despite having provided the evidence and analysis for action. Only they can do that, if they choose. Our purpose has not been to keep NCIA going for the sake of it, but to have a purpose out in the world, and to stop when we have done our job, or can no longer carry out that purpose. Closing is the right thing to do and we’re proud of our decision. A new space is needed to carry on this struggle and we know that it will emerge. Those of us who have been active in NCIA will continue our activism elsewhere.
Although NCIA will disappear, others will continue to push for social justice, equality, diversity and the defence of rights, entitlements, decent public services and a sustainable planet. An Open Letter on NCIA’s closure, signed by more than 65 groups shows the breadth of those voices which will not be silenced. We hope that this will encourage the faint-hearted that it is possible to speak up for better ways of doing things.
We leave this website as a resource for those wanting to access the research, the stories, evidence and connections we have gathered. And for those wanting to be part of the “next generation for independent action”, the NCIA Facebook continues, as does our discussion space on the National Community Activist Network.
The future we see
The world is faced by great dangers. Its people will continue, as in previous times, to gather together to do good for each other – not because they are paid to do so, but because something needs to be done. The future force behind true voluntary action lies in grassroots activism. Not in charities or professional voluntary organisations. Instead, there are impatient, angry and insistent people, often directly affected by damaging policies, who act together in loose associations on concrete matters affecting individuals and communities – whether this is local, national, in small or large campaigns, through social media or face-to-face gatherings of people. Much of this work is defensive, trying to hang on to essentials of life or to prevent further damage. From these reactive actions, alternatives to the current neo-liberal ideologies will emerge.
The motivation for this hive of activity is personal and political, not professional. Common interests will attract people from many different spheres – neighbours, workers, academics, writers, campaigners, unions, perhaps even a few politicians – whoever is willing and angry enough to give a hand. The work is mostly unfunded and under-resourced: saving a local service, opposing workfare and benefit sanctions, defending the rights of tenants, exposing poor social care, stopping profit-driven redevelopment plans which damage neighbourhoods and the planet. The future of progressive voluntary action – as has always been the case – will rest with individuals and the free choices they make personally and collectively. This is as true for people working inside voluntary organisations as for outsider activists and campaigners.
We think the future for mainstream, service-providing voluntary organisations and charities, as autonomous agents of progressive social change, is bleak. The trends we already have seen will continue. The larger agencies will become part of the privatised welfare state, cloaking their business activities with the smoke-and-mirrors of ‘social enterprise’ or working directly as sub-contractors to global corporations. Medium-sized, locally-based voluntary groups are unlikely to survive in any significant numbers. Small community-based groups will continue, as now, as informal volunteer-based associations carrying out humanitarian work and offering conviviality.
Within this picture, there will continue to be many, many unhappy and angry workers – paid and unpaid. As now, they will work against the odds to stand alongside their users and communities and work co-operatively, not competitively, with others. We hope that these individuals will find others of similar inclination and start to organise and speak out about issues which affect them and the people they work with. We like to think that an increasing number of dissenting voluntary groups will be able to speak out their politics for a just world. We can see already honourable exceptions to the general rule of charitable timidity, with new alliances arising – including cross border connections – among voluntary and community groups, activists, unions and academics.
We are not depressed about the closure of NCIA, though a bit weary! We leave with pride and gratitude. We have met so many friends and allies over the last 10 years. We know that the challenges we have offered will continue through those who have inspired us and kept us going over the last 10 years.
THANKS AND GOODBYE from all at NCIA xx