‘Fight or Fright’ – The NCIA Inquiry into the Future of Voluntary Services

During 2014 and into 2015 we conducted a wide ranging Inquiry into the many forces and factors that created the contemporary position for charities and voluntary groups involved in providing services. For these were the groups that had been most dramatically – and damagingly – affected by successive government attempts to turn voluntary agencies into arms-length delivery vans for government policy. 17 separate reports were produced into different aspects of the scene at the time, plus an overall summary of the Inquiry’s findings and conclusions.

In addition, a rendition of the findings of this Inquiry was published in the Summer 2015 edition of Soundings: A journal of politics and culture – Issue 60 – Austerity and Dissent. A PDF version of this article is to be found here. For subscription enquiries to Soundings please visit their website – http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/soundings/contents.html.

Lastly, we have included here a paper produced by Penny Waterhouse at the beginning of 2016 discussing the role of voluntary services and the relationship between voluntary services and public services.

The job of voluntary services (2016) Penny Waterhouse NCIA
A discussion paper on the unique democratic job of voluntary services in the 21st century: what they should do, should not do and might do; and the principles to draw on in deciding whether or not to accept public sector contracts.

All the Inquiry reports available can be downloaded below.

‘Fight or Flight: Voluntary Services in 2015’ – In a blistering critique of the threats posed to the values, work and freedom of the sector, this report brings together the material gathered as part of the Inquiry and presents our overall conclusions about the dismal picture of voluntary services in 2015 and asks ‘what can be done?’

List of Inquiry reports available (2015) NCIA
A full list of the reports produced as part of the Inquiry into the Future of Voluntary Services.

‘The ideological Context’ by Dexter Whitfield examines the changes brought about by the commitment of successive governments to the principles and practice of neo-liberalism, explains what neo-liberalism is, how this has reshaped the environment in which the UK voluntary and community sector now operates and its impact on voluntary agencies.

“Ordinary Glory: Big Surprise not Big Society” by Mike Aiken looks at the impact of the changed environment on small volunteer-based community groups, shows how the influence of contracting and marketisation has damaged all levels of voluntary action but describes how, with a little encouragement, these groups and their activities might discover the seeds of a positive future.

‘Outsourcing and the Voluntary Sector’ by Laird Ryan explores the motivations, progress and impact of the Coalition government’s drive to privatise public services and how this has impacted on the voluntary sector in England. In surveying the main service areas involved, such as social care, employment and youth services, the report evidences the damage being wrought by competition and marketization and the growing subservience of Voluntary Services Groups as sub-contractors to profit-hungry transnational corporations like Serco and G4S.

“The Devil that has come amongst us”: the impact of commissioning and procurement practices’ by Andy Benson looks in detail at the procurement and commissioning regimes through which this progressive enslavement of voluntary groups has been achieved. The result has been “…huge damage to the autonomy, independence and, sometimes, integrity of VSGs and a diminution both of their interest and capacity to speak out against injustice and to take their mandate from the needs of their users and communities.”

The Rise and Influence of Social enterprise, Social Investment and Public Service Mutuals’ by Les Huckfield documents how New Labour and Coalition governments, within a framework of neo-liberal thinking, have introduced business concepts and quasi markets as a way of re-engineering voluntary services. The report shows how, using ‘capacity building’, and with the support of sector leadership bodies, the voluntary services industry has been reined in as ‘governable terrrain’ and led to adopt private sector assumptions and ways of working.

‘Does Size Matter Paper 1’ and   ‘Does Size Matter – paper 2’ by Linda Milbourne and Ursula Murray. These major reports include new research findings and examine the changing ecology of the voluntary sector, paying particular attention to the emerging differences – and fortunes – of small and large voluntary services groups.  Paper 1 looks at the trends in income distribution across the sector and the evidence from area-based studies on the extent to which size is a factor in influencing experiences and approaches. Paper 2, drawing on in-depth interviews with 17 voluntary groups, explores the specific experiences of competition between larger and smaller providers in specific service areas. The paper concludes by setting out the practical and ethical dilemmas for groups caught up in this turbulent environment.

Voluntary Services and Campaigning in Austerity UK: Saying less and Doing More by Mike Aiken examines whether voluntary agencies providing services to disadvantaged groups are also campaigning for those people’s rights. How far are they presenting evidence – gathered from their day-to-day work with people facing poverty and destitution – to policy makers and the general public? Are they confident, able and assertive in ‘speaking truth to power?’

Inquiry into the Future of Voluntary Services Support for Black and Minority Ethnic Older People’ by Valerie Lipman looks at the role played by Voluntary Services Groups (VSGs) in tackling the disadvantage experienced by Black and Minority Ethnic Elders. Her conclusions indicate that little has changed for BAME older people over the last 30 years in terms of inequality, access to services and unmet needs as mainstream bodies persist in neglecting this group of people. This has created a situation in which the contribution of small BAME groups is crucial but these groups are undermined by cuts in spending and further marginalisation.

Refugee and Migrant Group Action on Xenophobia and Public Policy’ by Lisa Rodan looks at the response of VSGs working with migrants and refugees to rising xenophobia within public policy Her conclusions are that co-option and bureaucratisation has decreased solidarity amongst potentially radical factions within the voluntary sector concerned to defend the position of refugees and migrants. It is necessary for those advocating dissent and opposition to prevailing policies and attitudes “…to embed themselves within communities and create a dialogue of shared solidarity, resources and practical support.”

The impact of contracting and commissioning on volunteers and volunteering in Voluntary Services Groups’ by Colin Rochester examines contemporary volunteering, showing how contracting and commissioning have accelerated the rise of the ‘workplace model’ and the formalisation of volunteer management that “threatens the untamed and often maverick expression of free will that defines the authentic spirit of the volunteering impulse”. This view of volunteering as unpaid labour serves “to separate  and distance the work of VSGs from those volunteers and voluntary groups that occupy the world of activism.”

More for Less – public sector outsourcing and cuts to spending: the impact on voluntary sector workplace conditions and the role of the Trades Unions’ by Rosie Walker and Frances Sullivan looks at the effects of outsourcing and cuts to funding on those who are paid to work in VSGs, and on the role and response of the trades unions, exposing the damage being done to the voluntary sector workforce by the ‘race to the bottom’. This includes “…lowering pay at the bottom while increasing it significantly at the top, the casualisation of contracts, the exploitation of weaker employment rights and heavy-handed managerialism that frowns upon union activity, political activism of any kind and even, in some cases, on professionalism.”

‘The position and role of national infrastructure bodies concerning the cuts to and privatisation of public services’ by Lis Pritchard and Andy Benson looks at the record of six national infrastructure organisations (ACEVO, NAVCA, NCVO, Locality, Clinks and Homeless Link). Whilst most have expressed words of concern about the impact of the cuts, this has not led to practical action, organising amongst their members or even demands to counter cuts and austerity. With respect to privatisation these groups are revealed to have implicitly or explicitly supported the outsourcing of public services, confining any criticism to technical matters, such as commissioning processes, or complaining that voluntary services groups are unable to operate on a ‘level playing field’ with the private sector. Most have committed resources to encouraging and supporting voluntary groups to bid for public services contracts.

‘Homes for radical action: The position and role of local umbrella groups’ by Penny Waterhouse This report focuses on the work of local infrastructure groups and especially Councils for Voluntary Services. It shows how these groups were, during the New Labour years, progressively drawn into a ‘partnership’ that was defined by statutory bodies and led to focus their attentions on the voluntary services groups that could assist with the implementation of government plans for voluntary action. As the Coalition government stepped up its privatisation and outsourcing, many local CVSs actively assisted with the process despite mounting evidence that their own local voluntary groups are losing out to national charities and private sector contractors. The report also voices the frustration of many frontline workers and others who want to resist these changes, gives examples of alternatives that are emerging and sets out an agenda for change.

Struggling to Survive… Independently: Stories from the Frontline of Voluntary Service by Bernard Davies. This paper presents five case studies of locally-based VSGs struggling to survive in the environment of cuts to funding and moves to the use of contracting approaches by public bodies. They illustrate the difficulties and dilemmas experienced, and some of the responses being adopted, by groups operating within this environment.

Lenin’s Useful Idiots? Voluntary Action and Public Service Reform in Northern Ireland’ by Nick Acheson reviews recent developments in relations between voluntary agencies and the devolved administration, showing how the familiar pressures of cuts, privatisation, reliance on state funding, fashions for impact measurement and self censorship have played out against the background of the province’s distinctive history. It reveals “a profound sense both of discomfort and disempowerment among many, reflecting a loss of belief in their capacity to effect change in line with mission…. It is difficult to identify sources of potential resistance.”

What is happening in Scotland’ by Nicola Gunn written before the independence referendum this report offers a brief review of the current context on which future decisions and directions will be built.

Summaries and press releases of Inquiry reports

Voluntary services face bleak future as ‘servants of the Government’ (February 2015) – website summary of Fight or Fright.

Charity leaders conspire in bleak future for Voluntary Services as ‘servants of the Government’  (February 2015) – press release of Fight or Fright.

Charities told to keep quiet or lose government contracts (January 2015) – Press release of Voluntary Services and Campaigning in Austerity UK: Saying Less and Doing More.

Campaigning in the spotlight (January 2015) – summary of main points from Voluntary Services and Campaigning in Austerity UK – Saying Less and Doing More.

Briefing papers that established the Inquiry

Inquiry launch consultation event – May 2013 – notes of the consultation meeting used to launch the Inquiry on the 10th May 2013.

An inquiry into the future of voluntary services – getting down to the detail – the initial briefing paper for the Inquiry work

Cuts, privatisation of public services and austerity: the situation for BME Elders and the role that voluntary services play in tackling inequality and discrimination – a briefing paper for the Inquiry work on BME elders.

The volunteer-based services of community groups –  a briefing paper for the Inquiry work on services provided by small community groups.

The impact of commissioning-and-procurement – a briefing paper for the Inquiry work on commissioning and procurements regimes and activities.

The role of national charities – a briefing paper for the Inquiry work that focused on the role of national charities involved in delivering local sevices and of national federations of charities like Citizens Advice and AgeUK.

The State, the voluntary sector and public services – a briefing paper for the Inquiry work about the role of the voluntary sector in the provision of public services.

Social enterprise, social investment, mutuals and related initiatives – a briefing paper for the Inquiry work on the social enterprise world.