Wally Harbert: Dangers of the contract culture

An organisation that is an arm of government has lost the right to be regarded as independent and cannot represent the views of service users, writes our columnist

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert

For over 40 years, William Beveridge’s definition of voluntary action as an endeavour outside the authority of the state was universally accepted. It is no longer accurate. The demarcation line between state provision and the work of voluntary organisations has become blurred. 

Three quarters of the income of 27,000 voluntary organisations studied comes from the state. Of 40,000 organisations, a quarter said their main role was delivering public services.

Because of the substantial public funds they receive, we can no longer be sure that public statements from voluntary organisations reflect their genuine, unvarnished views. Nor do we know how often they remain silent rather than put their heads above the parapet. It is always difficult to speak truth to power. An organisation that is an arm of government has lost the right to be regarded as independent and cannot, convincingly, represent the views of service users.

A third of voluntary sector income now comes from the state. We should be addressing the need for advocacy services to fill the void left by charities that have accepted the Queen’s shilling. Instead, energies are turned inwards as charities argue about payments to trustees and the salaries paid to top executives. In some cases, formidable self-help groups have been converted into philanthropic bodies in which the voices of consumers are, at best, muffled. Instead of banging the drum for consumers, too many charities spend time and energy defending their bureaucracies. Thus do the interests of the powerful manipulate the charity agenda.

We should not be surprised that many in the charity sector have seized opportunities presented to them by governments to embrace the ideals of aggressive capitalism with emphasis on short-term gain, gross inequality, competition, targets, bonus payments, zero-hours contracts, predatory behaviour and the worship of power, dominance and control. These ideals have shaped political thinking in the UK during the past 30 years and it would be unrealistic to believe that the charity sector can escape them.

But the hegemony that now threatens charities underplays their obligation to empower others. It denies the sensitivity, compassion, self-sacrifice, altruism and empathy that have fuelled so much charitable effort and the passion and commitment that lead to change. We cannot rely on markets to uncover new needs or find the most effective ways of meeting them. Nor can markets provide fulfillment and motivation for volunteers.

The values of aggressive capitalism precipitated a world financial crisis. In the long run they will do no favours for charitable enterprise. The charity sector is losing its identity, becoming disconnected from its supporters and is in danger of losing its legitimacy. Bankers discovered, too late, that what was good for bankers was not necessarily good for banking. Charity should learn from their mistakes.

Wally Harbert has held senior positions in the voluntary sector and is a former president of the Association of Directors of Social Services. His book, Baby Boomers and the Big Society, was published in March 2012 by Grosvenor House Publishing

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