Debra Allcock Tyler: A visit down under made me worry they're repeating our mistakes

We probably have more to learn from the Australians than they do from us, says our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

G'day readers! How're you going? Yep, you've guessed it, I've just returned from a five-day trip to Australia. I was invited there by the Office of the Community Sector of the Government of Victoria to talk about, among other things, the big society and its impact in the UK, social finance and the role of the voluntary sector in social change.

It was a great trip, even though I came away worried that the Australians are following the UK's lead in government engagement with the voluntary sector - which, let's face it, is not going well. I did point out that they really shouldn't follow our example because we're buggering it up badly (they're Aussies - they like a spade to be called a spade, and an expletive to emphasise the point always goes down well).

You won't be surprised to hear that I was particularly scathing about social impact bonds and payment by results. One rather important sort of chap then asked me how I explained the success of the "Peterborough experiment". I was flummoxed. I'd never heard of it and said that if it was that successful people would have been shouting about it loudly.

Amazingly, on my first day back in the UK I was listening to Today when said 'experiment' was referred to by Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Justice. The absolute shocker was his statement that the payment-by-results model used in the social impact bond being pioneered at Peterborough prison was hugely successful - although he hadn't yet had the report with the evidence to back up that assertion. It seems the government is so confident this market-based, capital-intensive model is right that it doesn't need the evidence to prove it.

What really riled me was the bare-faced hypocrisy of this. We in the sector are constantly exhorted to provide evidence of need and success in order to get funding - but the government is allowed to get away with rolling out a controversial, highly contested model of funding the sector without providing evidence. How hypocritical is that? Well, it won't work. Private-sector models are not the solution to deeply entrenched, long-term social problems.

Although I was unaware while in Australia of the apparently enormous success of this un-evidenced model of finance, we were able to have a really sensible, grounded and thoughtful debate about whether or not governments could ever solve social problems, and what the best way of funding the solutions would be. I came away thinking we have more to learn from the Australians than they do from us.

To my shame, however, I confess I couldn't resist gloating about Team GB's results in the 2012 Olympics and asking why the Australian team hadn't turned up. You'll be glad to know that I still got the ovation and the gift - their enthusiasm and open-mindedness, it turned out, were matched by their sense of humour and generosity of spirit.

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

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