How about letting communities build themselves in 2012?

First published in Independent

Communities took quite a hammering in 2011. There were the riots, of course, in which the opportunism of the apologists for them among the commentariat was more than a match for the rioters themselves. Instead of an honest appraisal of what went on, there were shameless projections of prejudices onto those actually quite unprecedented events. I even found myself in the unusual situation of agreeing with Theresa May when she said the rioters ‘weren’t trying to make any political or social statement; they were thieving, pure and simple’. But even before the riots, those self-same commentators had been anticipating the damage to come from economic crisis and the government’s austere response to it. From rough sleeping, to wife-beating and rioting, no doubt, communities would begin to descend into all manner of deprivation and depravity, we were told. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned early in the year that ‘fortunes may nosedive’ for the poorest as community-builders lost their foothold (not to mention their livelihoods).

More recently, as the well and truly hammered were being picked up by the seasonal booze bus, the emptying out of the high street (of shoppers at least) met with dire warnings. Mary Portas, author of a government-commissioned report on the subject, talked of how they would ‘give a sense of belonging and trust to a community’ if only they could be revived. As if to confirm that all may not be lost, the organisers of Britain in Bloom (the UK’s largest voluntary campaign), reported that their tens of thousands of amateur gardeners still ‘built strong communities’. Nevertheless, the government’s flagship Big Society seems to have sunk without trace, living on only in a tiresome spat about cuts to public services and the voluntary sector; and in ongoing complaints, most recently by the public administration select committee (does anyone actually know what that is?) Without a Big Society minister, the select committee concluded, how could they (or we?) build a Big Society?

In its absence, Baroness Hanham rather pinned her hopes on the Localism Bill currently passing through the House of Lords. She thought it might help bring an end to a public sector culture that has ‘fostered dependency, with top-down targets, smothering bureaucracy and heavy-handed guidance’. But I continued to wonder whether localism – a creed that ‘attracts support across the political divide’ according to Hanham – was ever really going to make a difference. The consensus that localism is a good thing had done nothing to rebuild communities to date, and there was little reason to believe that more of the same would do any better. Having said that, I welcomed the deputy prime minister’s ‘very serious offer of more economic freedom and more political freedom’ to the nation’s core cities. There is a world of difference between advocating better local democracy and greater autonomy for cities and resorting to the petty parochialism that only tends toward a dismembering of the body politic.

Our communities, after all, are not blighted by distant political structures, redundant community-builders or deserted high streets, anymore than they were brought to ruin by the seasonally inebriated, horticulturally indifferent or riotously uncivil. They continue to stumble along despite community-worriers’ diminished view of their members as dependent, incapable of running their own lives and finding their own solutions to their problems. Perhaps instead of hammering communities into submission, we might be best to leave them to build themselves in 2012?

Why the big society should prompt a clean-up in the charity sector

First published in Guardian

The charity sector has lost its way and seems to have given up on its founding notions. We are seeing a rather unseemly scramble for funding as charities seek to retain what they can of their state hand-outs while public services are cut. Or fundraisers, particularly those pesky chuggers, seemingly unacquainted with the causes for which they are apparently campaigning. Volunteers are expected to be as interested in their own employability as they are in helping other people. And the sector is apparently more interested in contracts and compacts than campaigns and causes.

I don’t think we should blame the cuts or the “big society”, as many in the sector do, for the problems charities face. The whole point of the big society – and the reason why I welcomed it at first – was that it proclaimed itself to be against an overbearing big state. We were told it was for the idea that people are able to do things for themselves, and to run their own lives without being “supported” all the time. But it seems that the charity sector doesn’t see the big society in quite the same way, and the inference that it would not play the starring role in the coalition’s big idea really rankled.

“We are the big society”, it screamed. But is this true? At the same time that the sector has been claiming to represent us – to be the 99% (to borrow a phrase) – it has also boasted of its special relationship with the state. There is little pretence from sector leaders that it has any real independence, or indeed that this should be a problem. This “dual role” as both campaigner and service provider is described as a positive boon, allowing it influence that it wouldn’t otherwise have. But it also means that charities don’t stand for anything much anymore. The sector has no identity of its own, straddling both state and society. And so the promise of the big society, already held back by the prejudices of a parochial political culture, has become just another argument about funding, rooted in the charity sector’s historical sense of entitlement.

To the extent that charities have increasingly focused on providing services rather than campaigning, no matter how good a job they do they are no longer charities in any meaningful sense. The Shelters, NSPCCs and RSPCAs of the charity world bear little resemblance to their former selves. They struggle with their dual identity as very sizeable public servants, on the one hand, and rather compromised campaigners, on the other. Is it any wonder that public trust in charities is reportedly “second only in volatility to its trust in banks“? Nobody knows what they’re for any more. By shifting the focus of their work from tackling a social problem to managing their relationship with state bodies, they neglect what it is that gave them their reason for being in the first place.

My experience working with local government and the charity sector in one of the areas most affected by the August riots has been instructive. People have been coming forward, wanting to do something. The authorities have been going on about how uninterested and disengaged people are, and yet when they have come knocking on the door, are at a loss as to what to do with them. This has been interpreted by charity leaders as a problem created by the cuts – about not having the resources, and in particular the volunteer managers – to respond to this unexpected outpouring of community spirit. But I’m not so sure. I think it is their disjoint from the communities they claim to represent and serve that gets in the way of capturing that spirit.

The authorities – and I include the charity sector here – were taken aback that communities were rather more capable of building themselves than they’d imagined. That much-sought-after “sense of community” did what big society advocates and critics alike said it couldn’t – it emerged of its own accord. The clean-ups were organised overnight on Facebook and Twitter by impromptu “pop-up” community groups. Volunteers got their brooms out before the smoke – both metaphorical and real – had settled, and then went their separate ways. Some wondered whether we were finally seeing the big society in action, but not in a good way.

One way or another, the big society is doomed. The charity sector doesn’t have the resources to deliver it. We ordinary folk are not to be trusted with it. And, as some have noted, Cameron and his government have been talking a lot less about it anyway, as it has increasingly been seen as a byword for the cuts. This is a shame, not only because the big society preceded the cuts, but because its prospects should never have hinged on the cuts in the first place. It should have been a project for freeing up society, and creating a new culture of self-reliance, not a programme for government and its friends in the extended state sector to argue over. And yet, despite a sector seemingly intent on digging its own grave, we might try to breathe new life into the idea of charity. One more suited to today. And we might still resurrect some of the more appealing aspects of the big society, whatever we decide to call it. Maybe that way, rather than it being a clean-up for the charity sector, we can claim it for ourselves.

This is an edited version of a speech I gave at this weekend’s Leeds Summat

Charities should accept their game is up

First published in Independent

According to the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector, ‘independence – of purpose, voice and action – is what makes the voluntary sector special’. Sounds fair enough, but why the need for a panel? Is something amiss that makes such pronouncements necessary? Apparently so. Labour MP Lisa Nandy has accused her party’s former government of treating the voluntary sector as a ‘third arm of the state’. There is, no doubt, an element of seeking to co-opt charities to top-down agendas, but there has been little to suggest dastardly take-over plans. While congratulating itself on creating the self-evidently absurd Office of the Third Sector, the party’s policy review group admits to a ‘lack of overall narrative in Labour’s approach to the sector’.

The charity sector has hardly been dragged kicking and screaming down Whitehall. Like the political parties, charities are increasingly uncertain about their role in society. They also have in common, in the absence of a wider base of support, an obsession with wealthy donors. Far from resisting the advances of officialdom it has ‘taken on the role of the state and taken government funding’ into the bargain, says Nandy. Richard Hawkes, chief executive of Scope, seems to agree. He claims that some charities ‘tend to regard success as getting a place on a government committee’. It isn’t hard to imagine why this courtship makes sense from the perspective of a political class not usually associated with do-gooding. According to Nandy, ‘government loves charities because of that legitimacy’.

But, she cautions (and a little too late I fear), ‘charities must think carefully before they give it away’. The National Survey of Charities and Social Enterprises reports a third of respondents describing themselves as service providers compared with one in five two years ago. Nearly a quarter regard this – not campaigning for social justice or the good cause – as their main function. The Big Society, while profoundly irritating for many in the sector, was the culmination of an ever more intimate relationship between state and the so-called civil-society sector. Consequently, far from making us more free, it has only further ingrained a long-standing relationship of dependence. This relationship is only exposed by the severity of the cuts to the public sector, particularly as local authorities close ostensibly ‘public’ services.

A recent report concludes that today’s ‘charities struggle to measure their impact’. But too often this is understood in the narrow managerial terms laid out by local authorities, of specifying the contribution of this or that intervention to the achievement of this or that outcome. Why should voluntary organisations reduce themselves to this, and account for themselves in this way? The adoption of this rather forced and technical language to try to articulate the contribution of charities to the public good, only confirms that the sector is morally as well as financially bankrupt. It lost its independence long ago. Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Association for Voluntary Organisations, argued after the riotsthat we should be ‘giving them direction and showing them far better alternatives’. He was talking about the rioters but he might just as easily have been talking about the organisations he represents.

This stumbling around for something, anything, around which to articulate what charities are for suggests that the game is up. I wish they would just stand on their own two feet, but they don’t even know who or what they stand for anymore. If you ask me, the charity sector and political class are propping each other up like a couple of down-and-outs. And who’s going to help them?

Why feel charitable towards charities?

First published in Spiked

The UK charity sector isn’t feeling very charitable at the moment. It is, after all, being asked to deliver the Big Society while itself being subject to Big Cuts.

In an open letter to the prime minister, Stephen Bubb, chief executive officer of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO), warnsof an approaching ‘tidal wave of growing needs and rising cuts’. This new ‘programme for government’, this ‘renaissance for civil society’, he says (without any sense that these two things might be contradictory) is being starved of the funds it desperately needs. Stop ignoring us and give us the money we need for ‘supporting the poor and vulnerable’, demands Bubb. Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) echoes this plea: ‘We support the idea of the Big Society, but the government needs to take swift action now to ensure that voluntary organisations survive to deliver it.’

As a consequence of the £81 billion of cuts announced in last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review, local authorities need to save around £6.5 billion this year, and the charity sector is going to be nearly £3 billion worse off over the next five years.

However, Patrick Butler from the Guardian says: ‘The cuts are not directed at charities as such, but at services which charities happen to provide.’ These typically include things like ‘supported housing, women’s refuges, family support’ etc. It is the ‘vulnerable beneficiaries’, he argues, who will suffer most as they lose ‘a few hundred pounds here, a few thousand there; a youth worker made redundant here, a day centre’s hours dramatically reduced there’. All of these things add up and will in many cases, it is claimed, have a quite devastating impact on the people who use these services and who receive support from the charities affected. According to the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action: ‘This will cause real damage to many communities, which is why we all have a duty to speak out to protect services for our most vulnerable citizens.’

You might have noticed by now that the word ‘vulnerable’ keeps coming up. Which is why we have a duty to be more sceptical about some of the claims made on behalf of those ‘vulnerable groups’ we are told will be hit the hardest, especially given the hardships charities anticipate for themselves. There is, it seems, a degree of competitive claims-making and vaulting victimhood, as each charity seeks to out-patronise the other, as they in turn are patronised by the state. Is it really the case that our streets will fill with homeless drug-users, or that there will be a ‘surge’ in domestic abuse, if certain charities lose their funding or close down, as has been claimed? Are some of them guilty of inflating problems that are less pressing than we might be led to believe, or of inventing catastrophes should their funding be withdrawn? To what extent are they providing a useful service for people in desperate need, rather than hiding behind the vulnerable status of their supposed beneficiaries?

A recent piece in the Guardian expresses shock and outrage that a charity helping men being abused by their partners should lose some of its funding. After all, the British Crime Survey says that one in six men experience domestic violence. Is that really true?

What this actually suggests to me is that perhaps some services do need cutting. And the charities that provide these services should be denied the state support – indeed, life support – that is keeping them going. While I am in no way against charities providing public services – they often do a better job in many instances than local authority departments – when charities belittle those they claim to be working for; when they effectively become an arm of the state, we do need to ask ourselves what we mean by ‘charity’. The programme of cuts that charities are rallying against at the moment is nothing to be celebrated in itself, but it does expose the extent to which charities have become dependent upon the state.

As Butler puts it, what we are witnessing is the ‘extended state, if you like, being decommissioned’. Over a third of voluntary sector organisations receive state funding. That comes to around £12 billion per year. It is little wonder, in the midst of the economic crisis and severe public-spending restraint, that charities now find themselves in a state of crisis. A total of 1,600 charities reportedly went out of business in the Lib-Con coalition’s first year. Others have merged. Not only have charities lost much of their funding from the state, but private donations from members of the public are also on the decline. This no doubt reflects the fact that we all have less to give, but it also points to the sector’s increasing lack of legitimacy. It seems to have lost its way and, as a consequence, has sought out the wealthy corporate donor and the tax break, rather than going to the trouble of making the case for ‘the cause’ – whatever that might be – to the general public.

Stephen Bubb argues that the sector can and should provide services, while retaining its ‘independent voice’. He gave a talk last year explaining how, prior to the Reformation, the ‘concept of an independent charity sector was unknown because the affairs of charity and state were intimately entwined’. It was the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that brought us the ‘campaigning charity’ against cruelty to animals, for instance, and only then, bizarrely, children. Of course, as he suggests, charities like Shelter and the NSPCC continue to provide services and to campaign, too.

But this ‘dual role’ is deeply problematic because it confuses what charities are for – undermining any claim to be a truly ‘independent voice’, while endorsing them as somehow representative. Bubb, like many in the sector, wants it both ways. But charities that work for the state and at the same time campaign against it are inevitably compromised. The charity sector does not represent us. Shelter, for all its good work, does not represent the homeless and the NSPCC is far from representing abused children, still less the adult population of whom it has a very dim view.

Indeed, one might ask, who does the charity sector represent other than itself? And, as a result, why should we stand up for it when the money runs out?

The Big Irony

First published in Culture Wars

In her foreword to The Big Society Challenge, published by the Keystone Development Trust, Elizabeth Truss MP exhibits the opportunism that gives the Big Society a bad name. For her it’s a way out of crises – whether its MPs expenses or bankers bonuses –  and a way to pass the buck. ‘It is no longer assumed that experts and politicians can make technically correct decisions’ she says with not inconsiderable understatement. Still, the notion that the state should play an ever greater role in our lives needs to be challenged. This view –  which has intensified under the coalition with its Nudge agenda – is built on a diminished sense of people’s capacities to make their own decisions and run their own lives.

While I wouldn’t doubt the paternalism of Big State, the paternity of the Big Society is much disputed. According to editor Marina Stott, within Conservative Party ranks at least, it began with a Policy Green Paper in 2009, and a Hugo Young Memorial Lecture later that year. Cameron talked about ‘social renewal’ and a new ‘agitating’ role for the state. Early last year, the Big Society’s constituent parts – public service reform, community empowerment and ‘mass engagement and philanthropy’ – were revealed. But it wasn’t until last year’s (not to be confused with this year’s) re-launch that he tried to define it. ‘You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society’, he said.

Call it what you like, there is a growing disconnect between the vague rhetoric hinting at the possibility of an independent citizenry running its own affairs, and the announcement of some very top-down policy-making. So we have a National Citizen Service for 16 year olds, 5,000 community organisers, community-friendly ‘civic servants’, and a Big Society Bank. On top of that we now have a Minister for Civil Society charged with stimulating ‘social action’, and a Minister for Decentralisation to make sure there is no over-officious meddling. (All we need now is a Ministry for Silly Walks and the project will be beyond parody.) As Ben McCall, one of the book’s contributors, says, it is ‘all top-down and national, for a rhetorically bottom-up and localist agenda’. Far from heralding the liberating cultural shift envisaged, the Big Society has prompted a wave of initiatives from a political elite that couldn’t be further removed from the society people actually live in.

The more you look into it the more apparent it becomes that this ‘big idea’ is nothing of the sort, and in every other way is precisely the opposite of what it purports to be. For all its radical pretensions, says Mark J Smith of the Open University, the Big Society has much in common with the pessimism about human nature that characterises traditional conservative thought. And for all the wide-eyed talk, there is an underlying hostility to truly transformative change, and deliberate substantive interventions in wider society. Nevertheless – to my surprise, not to mention my disappointment – by the time I got to Smith’s second chapter on ‘Environmental Responsibility and the Big Society’, it became apparent that this was intended as a recommendation not a criticism.

Anne Power, at the London School of Economics, explains how the civil rights movement inspired community initiatives in the late 1960s, and how by the mid-1970s this ‘very short initial phase’ of self-sufficiency gave way to the state-led grants that are so threatened today. Then she too, having made an important point about the ‘hand-holding’ that was to follow, takes refuge in the localist ethos and an evident distaste for ‘gigantesque interventions’. In keeping with this outlook that second chapter of Smith’s goes on to argue that ‘we are now more willing to embrace’ obligations, duties and responsibilities that we might previously have shunned. People ‘recycle household waste, maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid behaviour that is harmful or annoying for their neighbours’.

Is this petty moralism, so typical of environmental thinking, really what the Big Society is all about? If social entrepreneur Robert Ashton, with his triple-bottom-line, pro-fair trade, conservative anti-capitalism is anything to go by, then yes it is. We ‘need to make do with what we have’ he declares, after all ‘less material wealth can often deliver greater spiritual contentment’. Tim RT Jones, of social investment firm Allia IPS, echoes this contemporary prejudice. Making money is bad. GDP is a poor measure of our well-being. Etc etc. Far from this oft-repeated view being interrogated, it is taken as given throughout the Big Society Challenge. In the final chapter, Jess Steele, of Development Trusts Association declares that it is not ‘power-over’ that we need but ‘power-to’. The important thing isn’t to seize control but ‘for groups of local people to be allowed to make our own change, using whatever resources we can collectively marshal’.

Putting aside the fact that this ‘power-to’, make-do-and-mend, money is the root of all evil mentality doesn’t get us very far, the notion of people being more involved and having more say over things still appeals. Nevertheless, notes one contributor, Colin Wiles, there is a ‘certain paradox in central government telling people to take control of their own lives’. Chanan and Miller, of consultancy PACES empowerment, think we need ‘super’ community organisers, professional paid-up members of the Big Society to coordinate things. Other contributors, thankfully, seem to have more faith in us to get on with it ourselves. Steve Wyler, of Development Trusts Association, calls for a ‘debate about the capability and potential for ordinary people’ to run their communities. Yet even he thinks that it is government that should ‘create conditions for independent civil society to flourish’.

Then there are Neil Stott and Noel Longhurst of Keystone Development Trust and University of East Anglia, respectively. They also note ‘a degree of irony about the central state attempting to impose a big idea about how local communities should behave and organise themselves onto local communities’. But what is doubly ironic is their own argument that ‘poor places are fragile, fraught and fearful’, and that the poor don’t have the resources to ‘organise themselves’ or build their own ‘community infrastructure’. This is the same diminished notion of people’s capacities that justifies such top-down impositions in the first place. David Wood and Sylvia Brown of Rural Action East and Action with Communities in Rural England, repeat an all too familiar refrain. It ‘will not occur spontaneously’ they warn, not without people getting ‘ongoing support and help to develop their own capacity’.

But the supposed dependency of the general public is nothing compared with that of the ‘independent’ sector itself. Social enterprise, for instance, the sexy new kid on the voluntary sector block, is still ‘regarded as woolly, confused, small-scale and grant dependent’ says Andy Brady of Anglia Ruskin University. Ashton is right when he says that social entrepeneurs tend to ‘survive only with subsidy and support’ and are not necessarily the beacons for the Big Society that they are made out to be. Reportedly 40% of them receive half their funding from state sources. These self-appointed ‘civil society’ leaders so critical of the ‘year zero’ of the Big Society advocates, nevertheless seek the continued patronage of the state.

All of which means, for those of us who initially held out some hope for it, that the Big Society has little to offer. As far as getting to grips with some of the problems associated with it, The Big Society Challenge is a good introduction, if a somewhat mixed bag. There are insights to be had, if not necessarily the ones that your supposed to take away. I can’t help but conclude, for instance, that advocates and critics of the Big Society seem united in their underlying hostility to people’s autonomy and their ability to exercise it without ‘support’. Far from representing a challenge to Big State, the Big Society is providing a new rationale for institution-building and state-led activity in the community. And far from offering opportunities for the enterprising, it appeals to elite prejudices about people’s incapacities and about the way we live our lives. After the briefest and most casual of flings, I can only conclude that we’re best off without it.

The Big Society Challenge can be downloaded free from the Keystone Development Trust [PDF].