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Infrastructure: the market takes the place of public service

There is growing evidence of an emerging crisis in the world of local voluntary action. Voluntary and community sector organisations are struggling to maintain their services at a time when the need for them has never been greater, and they are finding it increasingly difficult to access the resources to enable them to respond to this.

And the organisations – like councils of voluntary service – that have supported them by co-ordinating networks for mutual support, providing a focus for collective action and giving voice to their concerns have found themselves in an increasingly hostile environment.

The recent announcement of the demise of Volunteer Centre Hounslow, which lost its contract with the local authority to a predatory (and as-yet unnamed) national charity, is a stark reminder of the growing insecurity of these organisations, which have served their local community for decades.

Against this background, there has been a warm welcome for the report of a commission set up by Navca to look at the future of local infrastructure in response to “the quickening pace of social, political, and technological change”. But the fruits of eight months of activity and the consideration of more than a quarter of a million words of evidence from local groups, infrastructure organisations and national experts are profoundly disappointing. The report fails to deliver a convincing analysis of the challenges faced by the voluntary sector at a local level and, as a result, its recommendations for action offer very little that is either new or likely to have much impact.

Behind the soundbites about “creative resourcing to meet future challenges” and the need to be “leaner, meaner and more technologically savvy”, the commission’s map of the future is largely based on a prescription for more of the same, repeating what has been said by governments and those who claim to lead the sector for decades.

The key is for organisations to trim their sails to the prevailing wind, seek private sector sponsorship or crowdfunding, work together better and build bridges between stronger organisations and their weaker counterparts. The future will be secured by those who become more professional, focus their efforts better, deliver more, sell themselves more effectively and demonstrate impact and value for money in order to compete in this competitive market.

There are two major reasons why the commission has failed to rise to the occasion. In the first place, its analysis of what is happening to the environment within which local voluntary action takes place is totally inadequate. And, in the second, the concept of infrastructure organisations that it uncritically adopts fails to take note of the historical role of bodies like CVSs and their potential for reinvention.

The reference by the chair of the commission to “the economic downturn, austerity, the welfare reform agenda and reductions to central government and local authority budgets” fails to convey the extent and gravity of the issues confronting local voluntary organisations and the bodies that exist to support them.

The current government is engaged in the task of undoing the welfare settlement that has provided the basis for this country’s social security provision ever since the end of the second world war. The consequences for many of the people that voluntary organisations exist to help has been profound.

The second fundamental shift that affects local voluntary action is the growing infiltration of the culture and behaviours of the market into the non-market parts of our society. The ideal of public service has been hollowed out by privatisation, and voluntary organisations increasingly define themselves as contractors delivering services to their governmental customers.

The application of the idea of “infrastructure” to CVSs and other second-tier organisations is one consequence of the rising tide of marketisation. It reduces them to the role of suppliers of services or products to front-line organisations, reduces the scope of their ambitions and defines the nature of their relationship with their members.

The Navca commission’s call is to “Change for Good”, but meaningful change will not take place if it does not take heed of the radical changes to the landscape in which voluntary action takes place. The future of CVSs and their like will remain uncertain if they don’t think hard about their roles and their identities. Real change will come if they rediscover the original values underpinning their work and replace the culture of the market with traditional voluntary sector behaviours.

This could mean a change in the relationship between CVSs and their members: they would be seen as representative of the combined efforts of their members, rather than as a separate body offering services to other organisations. And their key functions would be to facilitate shared learning and mutual aid across the local voluntary and community sector, and to defend and promote the interests of their users and beneficiaries.

Colin Rochester is a partner at Practical Wisdom R2Z

  • Elizabeth Balgobin

    Colin, there is a market and ignoring that leads to groups closing. The Commission members discussed, at length, the fact the someone, somehow has to pay for the activities. Groups want the voice and policy bit of a traditional CVS but no one wants to pay for that as it is not possible to quantify it into widgets and hard outcomes.

    If your membership can’t or won’t pay, for whatever reason, but you are still providing a useful and needed service who should cover the costs of this?

    The very few now that get a core grant find that diminishing year on year as the demand grows.

    I do agree that more can do much more to promote mutual aid and shared learning and to speak up and defend their local sector.

  • Sally Young

    I agree with both Colin’s article and Elizabeth’s comments. If infrastructure organisations become purely support and development functions, offering discrete pieces of support, yes we will be useful to the organisations we support, but not to voluntary and community action as a whole. It is the advocacy / representation / speaking up and and out, policy and research and the overused but necessary phrase ‘speaking truth to power’, that many still value BUT won’t pay for. Most infrastructure organisations that have moved forward have set up relatively complex arrangements so these valuable services can be paid for by other means. We still go back to the issue of it’s about people and relationships; the transformational rather than the transactional. There are lots of siren voices about national solutions, relying on digital, and social investment but often these apparent solutions have no roots and are rejected or ignored by local people and communities. Many of the organisations and communities we support are going through terrible times and if our values and objectives are about supporting them, and relieving poverty, then we need to roll our sleeves up and get on with it