Martin Sime: The fourth sector and the persistence of 'big society'

Our man in Scotland on the big society, local government, ministerial appointments and Kafka

Martin Sime
Martin Sime

The term 'third sector' is used in Scotland mostly as a way of brigading voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises. But there is a fourth sector - lawyers, accountants, bankers and consultants - that feeds off the third, sometimes in the most unscrupulous ways. For example, much of what is written about charity law seems to have the purpose of drumming up business.

Where do I stand on the big society? On its windpipe, if it had one. I thought it was confined to the long history of ministerial enthusiasm for patronising community stuff, but no. New draft policy directions to the Big Lottery Fund require it to take account of "the big society policy context in England" when making grants. What does that mean?

Over the past quarter century I can count up to 10 ministers with lead responsibility for the voluntary sector, many of whom came to the job with little or no understanding of what we do. In my experience that is no predicator of success or failure - as Brooks Newmark showed, they often move on for completely unconnected reasons. We were disappointed by the decision of Alex Neil to stand down as Scotland's Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners' Rights, but have warmly welcomed Angela Constance to the role. Her instincts will get tested soon enough as the ambitions of our sector continue to flounder on the rocks of municipalism.

Our local government mostly lacks confidence, ambition and humility, as well as the small matter of having only a tiny mandate while presiding over the largest units in western Europe. At best we could be talking about a whole new paradigm, shorn of their service delivery workforce and with a remit to enable communities to take on more things for themselves. A sterile consultation on size and scale that keeps purpose and function off the agenda won't cut it.

Franz Kafka would have been proud to receive a transcript from the latest meeting of the joint programme monitoring committee, which oversees the implementation of European programmes in Scotland. Arcane processes, obscure acronyms and unintelligible purposes discussed in a series of delicate dances between Scottish and EU bureaucrats. What am I doing here? Why does civil society allow itself to get dragged into this?

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