Peter Alcock
Peter Alcock

Commentators on policy for the third sector in England have been concerned recently with two contrasting pressures flowing from developments in relations between the state and the sector.

The first, blamed on New Labour, but continued by the Conservatives, is the tendency for the growth in contract funding for public service delivery to draw third sector organisations ever closer into the workings of state agencies, so that in practice, and in principle, they become indistinguishable.

The second, blamed mainly on the Conservatives, but linked to the incorporation described above, is the effect of state policy and practice of stifling the advocacy and campaigning role of organisations, either directly by means of "gagging clauses", or indirectly through fear of loss of funding.

This means, some argue, that third sector organisations must now choose to be either in the state, or against it, but cannot be both. This is a false dilemma. State-sector relations have always been characterised by a mixture of incorporation and challenge - not dependency or independence, but interdependence. In reality, both the state and the third sector need each other, and need to manage changing relations.

This interdependence has been cast into a more interesting light by the shift in terminology under the Conservatives from the third sector to civil society, a term that has a much wider reach and significance than the former. Civil society is about how collective social relations are conducted across all sectors of society, and about the values that underpin these. Civil society puts the third sector at the centre of debate about all collective action - not in or against the state, but always both.

Peter Alcock is professor of social policy and administration at the University of Birmingham and author of Why We Need Welfare: collective action for the common good, Policy Press, 2016

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