Just over a decade ago the first new Labour government was elected on a platform that was based, in part, on a heavy emphasis on the virtues of strong relations between the public and voluntary sectors.
Early in its first term the government adopted a range of policies and initiatives that placed voluntary organisations at the heart of its social agenda, and it seemed for a time as though we were entering a new era of politics, where ideas of community and civic participation were the principal watchwords of government action.
Alongside these developments, we have witnessed an increase in the levels of public services contracted from voluntary organisations by the state. This continues a trend that started under new Labour’s Conservative predecessors, but takes place within a markedly different environment, with the government – on the face of it – concerned with the voluntary sector as a partner, rather than an instrument of public policy.
Yet the rise of these kinds of contracts, and the accompanying decline of less formal types of funding, asks serious questions of the voluntary sector’s ability to deal with the expectations of the public sector. Most fundamentally, the growth of government interest in voluntary action has meant that state funding of one form or another now forms the largest source of voluntary sector income.
Is there a danger of the voluntary sector becoming less an independent force in society than an arm of government?
With this in mind, it is the question of how best to regulate the voluntary sector that has most vexed those concerned with the future of voluntary action. How do we ensure that the voluntary sector is held to account for the public money that it receives, without compromising its true value?
This is an emotive subject, and the time has surely come for a mature debate, which reflects some of the complexities of the issue, as well as the legitimate concerns held by both the state and the voluntary sector.
Any such debate needs to capture the sheer diversity of voluntary organisations in Britain. We must be wary of talking about formal, registered charities as though they represent the entire voluntary sector. We must also be clear that those organisations in receipt of public funds do not constitute the true variety of voluntary action, which can run the gamut from small community groups to multinational ‘blue-chip’ charities; organisations that have little regard for public service contracts.
Of those organisations that do contract services to the state, however, the issue is pressing. Only recently we have witnessed renewed calls for more stringent approaches to financial disclosure from a number of sources, and some robust responses from the voluntary sector. These have been primarily based on concerns that the innovative nature of voluntary action, and its place as an element of society that is not at all to do with the state, might be compromised.
Despite these reservations good governance is surely a universal principle, and even the most ardent supporter of independent voluntary action must recognise the need to properly account for the use of public funds. The question is how we encourage these practices.
Simply demanding the kinds of accounting that we might normally expect from contracted organisations is not always appropriate - with most voluntary organisations there is literally no ‘bottom line’ as they do not record profits. Equally, most of us would baulk at the idea of evaluating the relative merits of voluntary organisations according to the targets and league tables that have become so beloved of modern government.
Rather, the public and voluntary sectors need to work together to develop forms of accountability that satisfy the requirements of the public purse, while recognising the different values, pressures and working practices that exist for those working in the voluntary sector.
Regardless of the outcome of this process, it is important to understand why many of those who work with voluntary organisations are concerned. The historian Frank Proschaska once described voluntary action as ‘the antithesis of collective or statutory authority’, reflecting its place as a central element of welfare provision that is institutionally separate from the state. In these times of increasingly close relations, we cannot lose sight of this vision.