I am encouraged by recent events I’ve been to and by comment in social media that the third sector’s relations with government might finally be turning away from a preoccupation with delivering public services to remembering why most charities were set up in the first place.
James Rees and David Mullins’ book, The Third Sector Delivering Public Services helpfully sets out the historical context for our relationship with government over the past 30 years. It begins with the Thatcher-driven "contract culture" to Labour’s third way of what Rees and co call "hyperactive mainstreaming" – seeking to build us centrally into public provision – and on to Cameron’s volunteer-driven big society.
Over the years some governments just paid us lip service, while others were well intentioned. But taken as a whole, they’ve seen charities pushed from pillar to post by shifting transient visions of their role in society, driven by whoever ruled the Whitehall and Westminster roost. No wonder the sector is confused about its identity. And no wonder the public are confused too. If Serco wins a public contract it doesn’t ask the public to dip their hands in their pockets to cross-subsidise the cost. So why should big, national, contract-providing charities?
As the screws tighten it’s becoming increasingly hard to reconcile public sector contracting with our values and mission. Small charities we fund at the foundation are seeing their public funding slashed as grants disappear, and a reducing pot is captured in contracts they have little chance of securing as the big players – voluntary and private – slug it out between them.
I hope the Children’s Society and Scope are showing the way by withdrawing from large-scale public provision, deciding it is incompatible with their mission to improve the lives of the majority they exist for. Just like Polly Neate at Shelter who called recently on big charities to focus less on brand and more on partnership so that they use their scale around a united front with smaller charities to achieve influence.
Different commentators have commented on this government’s lack of vision for the sector, but perhaps being ignored by a government battered by Brexit thunderclouds brings its own silver lining. We no longer have a government that sees the third sector as an instrument to be played. It doesn’t know what we’re here for. It doesn’t seem to care and, even it did, it doesn’t have the time.
In the absence of someone else’s vision for the sector, maybe we can reclaim our own. Julia Unwin’s Civil Society Futures inquiry should help us. Given what’s happening to the lives of those many of us exist for, there is no more important time to do this. Every day at the foundation we see the battles of universal credit, homelessness, poverty and failing services played out on the front line of the hundreds of small, local charities we fund. The government’s focus on helping the "just about managing" compounds our charities’ sense of being alone in reaching the "nowhere near managing". Society's marginalised are fast becoming collateral damage, ignored or inconsequential – a new norm in austerity Britain. No wonder the government’s been happy to co-opt our silence with a contract.
Charities won’t do what’s right by those we serve unless they return to their campaigning roots, projecting what they know and hear every day into public and parliamentary consciousness.
Many of us were founded just to do that. Most charities are an embodiment of previous calls for action from someone who knew enough to care, and who cared enough to respond.
If that means our relationship with government is less comfortable than it might have been in the past, all to the good if that discomfort is being driven by our intimate first-hand knowledge of the "burning injustice" at the heart of austerity pre-Brexit Britain. If Theresa May is true to her word she will welcome it, listen and act.
Paul Streets (@PaulStreets_ ) is the chief executive of Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales