Some may see the prospects for 2013 to be more doom and gloom. However, I think such pessimism comes from a rather short-sighted perspective on social change. A key lesson from the past is to take the long view on the political and organisational changes that affect voluntary action. Despite the fears of cuts, mergers and closures; history will not judge this to be a time of ‘crisis’ for the sector. Patterns of individual activity and organisational development show resilience over time and general incremental growth. For instance, data on reported voluntary action shows stability here and charity registrations have a long standing pattern of gradual growth.
This does not mean that politics and policies do not matter, of course. There have been significant changes recently in the social and economic landscape within which voluntary and community organisations operate. The big society has provided rhetorical support for much that those in the sector value – its role as the first point of call for civic engagement. Yet financial support from the public purse is being pared back – and, at local government level in particular, there is more (or rather less) to come.
For those who hope (or fear) that this will mean the end of public policy interference in (or engagement with) the sector, however, then they misunderstand (perhaps wilfully) how important the relationship between public policy and social action is. Public policy shapes social action, from education on civic values, through access to public space, to Gift Aid and contract funding.
This will continue to be the case, and in this respect I see no significant departures from past practice in the coming year, whatever the rhetoric. Government will still want to shape aspects of sector development, and what happens to public agencies will affect how voluntary and community organisations fare.
We should not forget, though, that policy cannot constrain independent action. My prediction is that advocacy and campaigning will remain strong, and in a healthy democracy third sector organisations will continue to challenge public policy. These independent voices will not be stilled; and all in power would do well to continue to listen to them – for from independent advocacy come many of the ideas (and the ideals) that will shape future social values.
The Third Sector Research Centre is sponsoring debate about some of these issues in our Third Sector Futures Dialogue. This will be continuing into 2013, and we encourage all those interested in the future of the sector to join us online.
Professor Pete Alcock is a director at Third Sector Research Centre