In February I attended the launch of the final report of the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector.
It was something of an epiphany: I was back in the political and intellectual climate and culture in which I grew up. I sensed once more an independent voluntary sector that knew and felt its own strength, and its own particular duty in a truly democratic society: robustly expressing a range of diverse and fiercely independent perspectives on the world. I instinctively felt at home in a way I have never truly have in the past 13 years working within the Scottish third sector, for the past five of these at a senior policy level.
Within Scotland, such debates are routinely framed by an explicit or implicit assumption that everybody’s views will naturally fall within a broad sociopolitical consensus – a consensus that is invariably held to encompass not only the Scottish government and third sector, but also the general sense of fairness, compassion and social justice of the broad mass of the Scottish People.
Perversely or otherwise, this is something I find stifling.
A few years ago I took a Myers-Briggs personality test, coming out as type ‘INTP’. Pleasingly, this confirmed some of what I myself had long recognised in my personality; INTPs have a tendency to “lead through conceptual analysis of problems and goals”, “apply logical systems thinking”, and prefer work environments where original thought is fostered.
All of these qualities might, at first sight, be seen as real assets in the work that has occupied most of my professional attention in recent years, that of determining the role that it is technically feasible and politically legitimate to expect the third sector to play in maintaining and developing social and public services in the emerging global, post-2008 world.
My experience has been quite the opposite. Despite the repeated assertion by the Scottish Government and by Scottish third sector leaders that the sector is renowned for its ability to develop innovative practice, I have never felt that the insights and analysis I have contributed to the debate here in Scotland on these vital issues has been particularly welcomed, either by the Scottish government representatives who throng the sector’s forums and conferences or – which concerns me far more – by the establishment of the Scottish third sector who routinely speak at such events.
I have frequently asked speakers at such gatherings if anybody has tried to estimate the scale of increased third sector activity likely to be necessary to offset the effects of the public spending cuts that are coming in earnest from 2015-16 onwards? If anyone has tried to calculate the capacity of Scotland’s third sector to increase their activity to meet such a challenge? Has anyone obtained a realistic appreciation of their aspiration to do so – or the extent to which they see it as legitimate? I have barely received acknowledgement that these are necessary or legitimate questions, from either sector top brass or government – let alone a satisfactory reply. But I have routinely had many audience members at these conferences thanking me after I had spoken for raising the same questions that they themselves were thinking.
The frustrations go far wider than this. While those in power in Scotland speak again and again of their wish to create a more just and effective economy and society, our sector has a wealth of creative, passionate people with extensive practical experience organising the effective production and delivery of social goods and public services through a variety of social and collaborative business models. These models could be templates for ways in which whole areas of the Scottish economy could be reorganised effectively in pursuit of the public rather than private benefit. Yet, despite their much-vaunted attachment to socially ‘progressive’ politics, Scotland’s government and sector leaders seem to have little interest in fostering or developing such pools of knowledge and expertise.
These views do not fit readily with the supposedly highly collaborative relationship between Scotland’s government and its third sector. But my experience here in these last 13 years, the most recent ones in particular has taught me that the independence of the voluntary sector in this part of the UK is under threat, not so much from the arrows of a government we might naturally see as being instinctively opposed to the sector and its values, but rather from the suffocating grasp of a government that seems ever-eager to present itself as our friend.
Alan Young is a freelance consultant in organizational leadership and development, and specialises in social and public policy