Debra Allcock Tyler: Reform? Just who needs reforming, exactly?

The government should keep its nose out of the sector, writes our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

"Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me." I suspect many of you, like me, were taught this as a child to help you to deal with those times when people were spiteful or unkind. The problem is - it's not true. Words do damage. They influence behaviour and they indicate beliefs.

So I was horrified to discover that at the Office for Civil Society (the bit of the Cabinet Office that is supposed to support, encourage and facilitate the work of charities and voluntary organisations) there is a team called the Sector Support and Reform Team.

Clearly the government thinks our sector needs 'reforming'. Which begs the questions - reform it from what, and to what? What's wrong with it that it needs reforming? And what qualifies this team to say we need to 'reform'? Where would you even start? Talking of reforming the sector is a bit like trying to sculpt a jelly - you can chisel, chip and mould with all the enthusiasm in the world, but you will still be left with a shapeless and amorphous mass. And you will probably have left a mess.

What is it with governments - of all persuasions - that they endlessly try to interfere with the way we do things in the charitable sector? That they know better how we should operate, how we should fund ourselves, how we should engage with our beneficiaries? And how does this team's existence sit with the Chancellor's mantra of trusting people to make their own decisions?

I find it really frustrating that so often our MPs and public servants forget who is supposed to be serving whom, and where the expertise lies.

We're not incompetent do-gooders, for goodness sake. The vast majority of people in our sector, from trustees to volunteers and paid staff, are intelligent, experienced and knowledgeable about our work and our beneficiaries. We are usually focused, highly competent and ruthless in the pursuit of our charitable objects. We deliver exceptionally high-quality services with very little money and hardly any resources. We carry almost no debt. We deliver more impact for every pound we get than the exchequer. We are more ethically run than the private sector. We are subject to more stringent scrutiny than any other sector in the UK economy and, according to the NCVO's UK Civil Society Almanac, add more to the economy than the agricultural sector. The efforts of our wonderful volunteers alone are thought to be worth about £23bn.

Are there a few exceptions to the above list of our amazing qualities? Probably. But those organisations always get caught out in the end, by losing funding, beneficiaries or volunteers. We don't need the government to tell us to reform - when it's needed, our natural 'market' does that very effectively for us.

In the end, governments will always want to interfere with something as successful and effective as our sector. It behoves all of us to tell them to keep their noses out.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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