State of the Voluntary Services Sector – Bob Baker writes

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State of the Voluntary Services Sector – here Bob Baker, Director of the Simon Community, writes in a personal capacity…..

“The so called voluntary sector is in a pretty parlous state particularly when it comes to any notion of resistance. I think that changes over the past 30 years have had really corrosive effects. One aspect of this is the move from grants to commissioning and the contract culture, which has led, almost inevitably, to privatisation. Having got used to being commissioned to act as agencies of the state with the responsibility but not the power, they are now all competing against each other and clearly the big businesses are going to get all the contracts. Many voluntary sector organisations have lost touch with their roots and most people you meet in the voluntary sector have no idea about the political dimension of the work they were set up to do. Many of them think they are not allowed to take a political stance on anything. The Simon Community sees political action as central to our role. We have as a founding principle that we will not accept funding from the government. This is partially to maintain our independence for campaigning purposes but also to prevent us from being corrupted or influenced by government agendas and imposed outcomes.”

Commissioning, through contracts, is now the main way that voluntary services get money from statutory bodies. It is the mechanism being used to privatise public services – whether into voluntary agencies or the private sector. This has led to competition, not co-operation, between voluntary groups; and prescriptive conditions which can divert from the purposes for which they were set up. Relations with staff, users and local communities become damaged and, to avoid biting the feeding hand, independent campaigning voices silenced. Many voluntary agencies are now simply sub-contractors – to the state or the private sector.

Evidence shows that commissioning based on competitive markets is more successful at finding the best bidders than in finding the best providers. It is only large organisations or consortia that will be able to take this questionable step. The scene is now set for corporate national charities to compete alongside private sector companies like A4E, Serco, Virgin and G4S, and on a field that is far from level. Small- and medium-size voluntary agencies, whether embedded in their communities or not, have little chance against these odds.

[This item was first posted in October 2012]

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