Surprisingly scathing critique from Barings panel, but no call to arms

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NCIA was pleased to see a strong attack on the effects of market-led commissioning models, but thinks the panel needs to be less cautious on the change that is needed on two key issues: funding and commissioning mechanisms, and the need for voluntary organisations to combine to fight off the threats to their autonomy.

NCIA welcomes the Baring Foundation Independence Panel’s first annual assessment ( as a useful start to urgently needed discussions about threats to voluntary sector independence. This assessment follows an initial stage during which the panel asked for responses to a document about independence. NCIA’s response to that consultation is here:

The panel recognises many of the threats to independence which NCIA has been documenting for the last few years, and expresses them in stronger terms than we have previously seen in voluntary sector commentators other than ourselves. The assessment sends out a clear message about the risks of continuing down the current road, recognising the Work Programme not just as flawed in itself, but as an indicator of wider threats to the sector from market-led commissioning models. It understands that the blurring of boundaries between sectors through loosely defined concepts like ‘social enterprise’ is also a threat to voluntary sector identity and credibility.

We’re glad to see from the assessment that additional elements about public trust and self-censorship have been added to the ‘barometer of independence’, and are pleased that the panel is now linking directly on its website to NCIA’s independence audit for organisations: (

The panel has understood divisions within the voluntary sector, and the difference between large, corporate national charities (who did not respond to its survey), and smaller, community-based organisations, which it sees the importance of defending. However, it shies away from the recognition that a number of voluntary sector organisations have embraced the blurring of boundaries between themselves and the state and/or the market, and have willingly renounced their identity. Some infrastructure organisations have encouraged this. Many of the problems identified in the report must be addressed not just by different attitudes from government and individual trustees, but by the sector as a whole (led by its national representative bodies) forming a united front and fighting to retain its identity. The assessment identifies the need for ‘ strong and distinctive voice for and within the sector’ (p28) without suggesting what that might be.

There is a dual focus on the dangers to independence from statutory funding and from sub-contracting involvement with the private sector. An omission is the growing problem of prescription from the trust and foundation sector, which increasingly mimics government funding mechanisms and priorities.

We continue to have some reservations about the panel’s evidence base, There is no indication of a systematic review of the literature or of any primary research beyond the 50 self-selected people who were involved in the consultation on the original document. We hope to see more extensive evidence-gathering during the next stages of the work.

While it presents a strong critique of the status quo (albeit without any wider ideological context: it doesn’t question whether voluntary sector agencies should deliver public services, but rather wonders how they can remain independent while doing so. NCIA would argue that they can’t), we do not think the panel’s prescriptions for dealing with the problems are strong enough. There is a naive belief in the effectiveness of regulation, codes of guidance, the Compact, Merlin etc. We know from many of those involved in ‘partnership working’ that where the direction of travel is based on concepts of markets and competition, or on commissioner control, ideas like fairness, transparency and independence will not be naturally integrated, but will survive only in the form of voluntary commitments. A genuine analysis of cross-sector working is impossible without looking at power imbalances between the voluntary sector and the state and private sectors, and recognition that one of the voluntary sectors raisons d’être is campaigning: holding government and other interests to account, not signing up to agreements drafted by its more powerful ‘partners’ in return for its seat at the table.

The panel needs to be less cautious on the change that is needed on two key issues: funding and commissioning mechanisms, and the need for voluntary organisations to combine to fight off the threats to their autonomy.

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