Interview: Colin Rochester

The academic and author of a new book on the nature of voluntary action tells Stephen Cook that the professionalisation of the sector has taken a toll on its core values

Colin Rochester
Colin Rochester

Colin Rochester spent a lot of his working life, first in the voluntary sector front line and then as an academic, helping to give currency to the term "voluntary sector" in the belief that it would enhance the distinctive qualities of voluntary organisations.

But he came to believe that the term was actually doing the opposite and has become a critic of the prevailing orthodoxies. "A great deal of voluntary activity is completely different from this thing that has styled itself the voluntary sector," he says.

When he first worked in small organisations in south London in the 1970s, he says, there was no such thing as "the sector". But as voluntary organisations worked more closely with national and local government and gained more funding, they steadily became more professionalised, managerial and bureaucratic.

Now, he says, the approach of a small number of large, philanthropic, service-delivering organisations - which comprise about 2 per cent of the total - is taken to define the entire sector at the expense of the much larger number of smaller organisations that are often non-bureaucratic and rooted in self-help, self-expression and recreation.

"It seems to me there are serious problems in viewing the entire body through the lens of one small bit of it," he says. "And if that bit has changed and lost touch with the wider world of voluntary action, then something very important has been left behind - it's no longer distinctive and there's no great point in banging the drum for it."

This is the main thesis of Rochester's new book, Rediscovering Voluntary Action, which includes his detailed account of why the sector was "invented", mainly as a result of the Wolfenden Committee on the Future of Voluntary Organisations of 1978, and consolidated by the Commission on the Future of the Voluntary Sector, chaired by Nicholas Deakin in 1996.

The invention of the sector, Rochester argues, radically changed the relationship between the state and the biggest voluntary organisations: in return for increased funding, a voice in policy for its leaders and a role in public service delivery, it undertook to become more efficient, bureaucratic and businesslike.

Rochester says one result of this has been that the erstwhile mindset of voluntary organisations, which was to establish the needs of people in communities and respond to them, has been replaced by one in which they provide services for the kinds of users prescribed by the agencies of national and local government. Volunteers, he adds, are treated by the formal voluntary sector as unpaid workers rather than as people who bring something different to an organisation.

Another result, he argues, is that there has been a massive "sleight of hand": governments justify the use of voluntary organisations to deliver public services on the grounds that they are flexible, innovatory and responsive to users - but impose an increasingly prescriptive commissioning regime that prevents them from being any of those things.

The narrative in Rochester's book is cogent, persuasive and well-presented. But is he just a voice crying in the wilderness, scoffed at by critics who talk of rose-tinted spectacles and say he harks back to a golden age that never really existed? He accepts that conventional thinking is against him, but sees some signs that things are beginning to go his way.

For example, he says, the recent report by the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector, which describes a growing threat from the government to independent voluntary action, could easily have been written by the National Coalition for Independent Action, a dissenting pressure group founded in 2006, of which he is a founding director.

He also thinks some in the academic world no longer assume that the predominant ideology in the sector is inevitable and that everyone has to adapt to it. "These are straws in the wind, but they suggest to me that what the NCIA has been banging the drum for is becoming more widely accepted," he says.

"The big national charities are a lost cause, but they never really were part of the sector. What is interesting is what's happening at local level, where there is pressure for small organisations to conform. There are plenty of organisations that are on the cusp of change and are not a lost cause.

"They are being groomed to become providers of services, but they're not getting the work. Many will be faced with the fact that the rewards of the path they're taking will not fall into their lap, that they will be unable to compete. They will have a rude awakening, but to the extent that they have roots in voluntary action they will survive.

"When I go and talk to people in small voluntary organisations, I sense a lot of their distinctive characteristics are still there and could blossom again - but then I'm probably an incurable romantic."

CV

2011: Honorary Research Fellow, Birkbeck, University of London

1999: Founder and director, Centre for the Study of Voluntary and Community Activity, University of Roehampton

1988: Lecturer, Centre for Voluntary Organisation, London School of Economics

1978: Head of Cambridge House and Talbot Settlement, south London

1971: National development officer, Workers' Educational Association.

In his own words

'A single narrative'

The invention of the voluntary sector has created a policy field as well as developing a policy sub-elite made up of those who lead the intermediary bodies and those who act for government at central and local level, together with some 'useful' fellow-travelling intellectuals. Their achievement has been to gain widespread acceptance of one narrative about the role and functions of voluntary organisations in public and social policy and one view of organisational effectiveness and efficiency.

The NCVO

During the last 20 years, voluntary organisations have come to be seen as ever more significant actors on the stage of public and social policy, while successive governments have looked to volunteering as a means of addressing a variety of social issues. Urged on by "infrastructure" bodies such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, those who manage and lead voluntary organisations have enthusiastically embraced the opportunities created by these developments (and the resources which go with them) with little, if any, reflection on the implications of their decisions.

New Labour

The closeness of the relationship between the NCVO and government in the New Labour years is illustrated by the career of the NCVO's director of public policy, Campbell Robb. He was seconded part-time to the Treasury to advise on sector issues before he went on to become the director-general of the Office of the Third Sector in 2006, and thus responsible for "the most wide-ranging ever consultation with the third sector and the subsequent creation of a 10-year government strategy for the sector" until he became chief executive of Shelter in 2010.

The coalition government

The coming to power of a very different government in 2010 with an overriding commitment to 'austerity' and balancing the books, and a Thatcher-like mission to reduce the scope and range of government, has not only changed the environment in which voluntary organisations operate, but also exposed the weakness of their position as clients of the state. Cuts in public spending hit voluntary organisations hard; the network of strategic national partners was dismantled and the Compact turned out to be the "umbrella for a sunny day" it had been characterised as by some of its critics.

Acevo

A symptom of the changes to the voluntary sector brought about by the influence of the market has been the rise to prominence of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations. Under the aggressive leadership of Sir Stephen Bubb, this trade union for voluntary sector managers has acquired what seems to many a disproportionate influence on government as well as in the sector. This can be seen as a reflection of the way authority in voluntary agencies has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the most senior staff at the expense of their governing bodies.

'Merger mania'

Governments have wanted to 'rationalise' the world of voluntary action since the end of the First World War, primarily for their own convenience. Ministers and civil servants are confused and irritated by what they see as the anarchic nature of the sector, with its apparent duplication of functions and its plethora of intermediary or representative bodies. Above all, they are seeking an answer to "the Kissinger Question", after the US Secretary of State who was reputed to have asked: "If I want to speak to Europe, who do I phone?"

Buy Rochester's book for £15.99 - a 20 per cent discount (paperback only) - directly from the Palgrave Macmillan website via this link, quoting WROCHESTER2014a at the end of the ordering process. Valid until 30 June.

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