Voluntary organisations are "confronted by implicit or explicit pressures to say less and do more", according to a National Coalition for Independent Action report on charities delivering services in local communities.
Voluntary Services and Campaigning in Austerity UK: Saying Less and Doing More was written for the pressure group by Mike Aiken, an academic and researcher who previously worked for various charities including Save the Children and Community Matters.
Voluntary sector groups, the report says, are "confronted by implicit, or explicit, pressures to say less and do more; they face gagging clauses in funding under contracting arrangements that threaten to stop them advocating and campaigning; and contracting for services may, step by step, coopt them into complicity with the machinery of government; provisions in the so-called lobbying act, passed in January 2014, create an atmosphere in which it is difficult to speak out".
The report says that gagging clauses are counter-productive: "Voluntary organisations in such structures may, quite literally, become agents of the state, in that they can be obliged to keep information or observations private even when their insights might help improve the service or conditions for local communities and individuals."
One voluntary organisation that delivered welfare services and did engage in campaigning told Aiken it had faced "subtle and menacing" threats on more than one occasion from significant political figures. "It appears that, for some organisations, speaking out in the current climate requires more than good evidence – it requires some bravery," the report says.
It says that councils are less keen to partner with or give contracts to vocal organisations, while larger voluntary groups might also be less keen to partner with such groups. The report says that small, local groups that have a much better understanding of local conditions might find it difficult to work with larger providers of outsourced services; one charity described their respective ways of working as incompatible.
The report says: "The situation appears to be getting worse just at the point when it needs to get better – to support the voice of those most affected by austerity."
Commenting on the report, Aiken said: "Charities have played an active role in a democratic society, and this can be understood as their responsibility and ethical duty. Their voice needs to be heard and amplified to provide a vital ingredient of evidence and to speak with authority and legitimacy to policy-makers and civil servants – enabling the voice and experience of the most disadvantaged to be heard in the corridors of power and by other citizens."
The report is one of 17 produced by the NCIA as part of its inquiry into the future of voluntary services.