Thanks to Greg again for the further prompt - the probation decision sucks,
and the stupidity is beyond belief...
But the thing I'm trying to get at about this issue (and I know it's not the
result of research, so it's place here is debatable)is: what is the worry,
People have been expressing a variant of the worry (about voluntary
organisations' relationship with government) for ever, and voluntary
organisations have nevertheless carried on doing what they do, variably - and
that's the point, the variety.
There isn't a problem or even a task here for 'the sector', because the
'sector' - locally or nationally - isn't something that can do anything. At
the risk of echoing Thatcher, there are individual organisations...the whole
point of their independence is, they decide individually what to do, and they
make different decisions; there isn't a sectoral solution because there isn't
(and never has been) a sectoral problem.
If the opposite were true - that we could conjure an uncontested sectoral
response to the worry/problem/issue - then we would no longer be talking
about independent organisations.
So what research would it be useful to do? ideally, of course, longtitudinal
studies of the consequences of different types/degrees of engagement with
government; but it would be good enough to do retrospective studies of
contractors/non-contractors: who gained or lost what?
If I were doing this kind of study, my hypothesis would be restricted to the
way organisations are managed, ie that there is more managerial isomorphism
amongst contractors than others; whether this is a good thing or a bad thing
depends on your point or view; but I might find it's not true, because the
non-contractors may try to survive independently in a market-place through
adopting similar management strategies to those that contract.
I guess others would be more interested in policies and outcomes.
Another thing (and sorry if I've said this before)...in twenty five years
plus of consultancy, teaching, training and research with voluntary
organisations, I've only ever been asked once if I would join a management
body; this may be because I'm a peculiarly unattractive prospect as a
trustee, but I still get a different picture from the dominant one of
unavailability - it's like the kids being interviewed by radio four, eg in
Peckham, year after year, who say "There's nothing to do round here"; this is
cobblers - they have just chosen not to enagage with whatever is on offer,
maybe for very good reasons, but their claim is still not true.
From: VSSN [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of
Sent: 01 March 2007 13:33
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Voluntary Sector is "full up"?
A new heading was my attempt to get a rather different thread going but
maybe it is not so different after all:
BBC web site reports http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6402965.stm
The government has won a vote over plans to privatise the Probation Service,
despite a backbench revolt. MPs voted 293 to 268 in favour of the Offender
Management Bill - cutting the government's majority from 62 to 25. Critics
said letting firms and voluntary groups in England and Wales run services
would increase reoffending rates and destroy "local connections".
When one's partner is someone who has worked as a probation officer for over
20 years waking up to this news is not a pleasant experience, as it was me
and the dog that were lightning conductors for anger directed at John Reid
and the stupid government..
But the issue it raises for me is where will the government's expectations
of the voluntary sector end? In one area after another they are looking to
the third sector, the voluntary, community and faith groups to take on work
loads, and compete for contracts that in previous times were seen as the
natural task for the local or national state.
My own local experience in this sector is suggesting that we ought to
recognize there is an absolutely limited capacity in the sector to do any
more and that before long we shall need to put up signs saying "sector full
up" or "services suspended due to staff shortages".
For example I was at a local neighbourhood management board this week,
trying with others to move forward co-ordinated local regeneration action
and service delivery. While I find this commendable in terms of the desire
to collaborate and implement joined up planning, and in the desire to give
local residents a voice in the way their locality develops, the practical
reality is somewhat different. There were about 15 (good and committed)
people in the room. Four or five were local residents although two of them
draw a salary from an organisation working in the area, which is largely
funded out of the public purse and were there in work time. The rest were
all employees of statutory bodies or their arms length agencies, including
the police, the city council, two registered social landlords, an FE
college, and SRB funded community projects. Only three people were giving
unpaid voluntary service in attending this meeting, although at least 10,000
local residents would be eligible to be involved in the process of
neighbourhood management. Community meetings in this city typically follow
this pattern, despite calls for widening participation in volunteering and
community governance, there appears to be a small pool of "active citizens"
sometimes known as "usual suspects", and most of them are paid.
For those involved in the Third Sector research and policy making it poses
these key questions:
1. Do we have a clear definition of what "voluntary action" means and an
understanding that much of what goes on in the "voluntary sector" is no
longer truly "voluntary"?
2. Are there measurable limits to the quantity of voluntary action or
potential volunteer hours available within the population of the UK and in
the context of other demands on peoples time, (e.g. earning a living, caring
for self and family, being a consumer, leisure and entertainment) are we
nearing that limit? Is any one (Institute of Volunteering Research??) doing
research on this?
3. Given the wide range of opportunities for unpaid contributions to the
community which choices do volunteers make? My impression is that lots of
people offer time in sports clubs, in religious groups, in some campaigns,
in fund raising drives and in some hobby and leisure groups, but that apart
from the few "usual suspects" most are reluctant to engage in neighbourhood
community action, in committee and trusteeship work for the sector and in
anything to do with politics. I should think the data from the Home Office
citizenship surveys bears this out, though I haven't had time to check it.
One final thought with Red Nose Day coming up. I wonder if in our celebrity
and consumer culture we are seeing a phenomenon of "vicarious volunteering".
In sociology of religion Grace Davie and others have argued that the typical
form of English religion in the late 20th Century was "vicarious
Christianity". People believed in a vague way but didn't bother to belong to
a church or take an active role, or give more than a few pence, but expected
the church to be there to pray for them to christen, marry and bury people
as necessary and to offer practical help in time of need. How far is it the
case that the general public feel warm that Lenny Henry, Bob Geldorf and
their mates organise TV charitythons, might give a few hours of their time
and a couple of quid to the collection, but are really quite relieved that a
few other people are paid to deliver charitable service to the homeless, the
refugees, the children with cancer and leaning difficulties? Is anyone doing
current research on the contemporary culture of charity and volunteering?
What do you think they would discover?
(No longer paid as Research Fellow at Centre for Institutional Studies in
For up to date news of me see my new blog:
(Updated) home page
Lancs. PR1 8DU
e.mail [log in to unmask]
Phone no. 01772 827987