Debra Allcock-Tyler is the CEO of the Directory of Social Change in the UK which has “a vision of an independent voluntary sector at the heart of social change”. Debra gave two keynote addresses, the second of which I will report on here.
The theme was around Big Society in the UK. Debra began by describing this policy idea as being like hay. “Good ideas get fed to the horse and what comes out the other end is . . . . .”
Debra spoke about three planks of Big Society:
2) Reform of Public Services
3) Community Engagement
In the UK, power has been devolved to local authorities, and in the new scheme of things there is a right to challenge. What this means is that not for profits can tell local authorities that they would like to tender to provide various services, but that then the tender process becomes highly bureaucratised, and the successful bidders are usually private contractors. Debra’s highly amusing yet sad example of this was of a neighbour whose house backs onto a sports oval which has fallen into disuse and disarray. The neighbour went to the local council to see if she could obtain a grant to buy some materials to enable her and some local volunteers clean up the space (ie wheelbarrow, whipper snipper, protective clothing, rubbish disposal). The council thought this was such as good idea that they decided to clean up all the local sports areas, but under EU procurement rules, this needs to go out to tender.
So it ended up that a commercial contracting firm was employed to come in every now again to mow and tidy, thus losing the local investment, community engagement and care which would have ensued should the neighbour have been able to organise this as a community activity for her particular sportsground. The policy thus ends up with outsourcing, and not with local people, whereas if the funds had been provided as a grant, this would not have been the case.
Public Service Reform
Debra is of the view that governments think improvement is about making things cheaper, but if you drive down price you are driving down quality. If the government is constantly seeking to reduce costs this ends up “marketizing” the public services. The example cited was the Work Programme. This involves private contractors hiring charities to take on their more difficult cases in work placement, as the private contractors are more interested in only dealing with the cases which they can get through efficiently and quickly (and cheaply). The response from the charities involved in having the more difficult cases thrust to them is that they may not be able to see out their contracts, as they don’t have the resources to adequately support those client who need the most care and time. I know this is sounding terribly dry, so I apologise for not having managed to convey the delight, humour and wit of Debra’s speech. What she was trying to do I think was to convey a warning to us here, to be very wary of potential changes in public policy in this area.
Debra was particularly scathing of the voluntary sector (as she calls it – we would call it the not for profit sector) in colluding with government in allowing the outsourcing and tendering processes to occur, rather than calling for grants. Another example she gave was where a contract might have been awarded to ABBS.co.uk (a bunch of blokes with shovels) to clean up the canal, rather than allowing local volunteers to be engaged through the Friends of the Canal, and build their sense of community and ownership. (further research tells us that the Friends of the Canal are now in full swing – and across all of England).
It is important, Debra stressed, for the voluntary sector not to collude and only apply for money through tenders as if that were the only way to get funding. Her view is that this would not lead to long-term outcomes – because sometimes the not for profit sector organisations get distracted from their core mission and purpose in chasing the tender money trail. Debra reminded us to always go back to the core:
Who are we? What we are here to do? Who do we want to serve? What are our values and vision?
Debra also made some rather pithy comments about social investment (which I have been meaning to write about for some time and promise to do so soon). This is basically where charities are able to borrow funds in order to carry out their mission (and must repay them). Why, for goodness sakes? asks Debra, should the not for profit sector, which has been so good at not being in debt (compared to the private sector and the government) be encouraged to go into debt, at a time when there is too much debt? (a very interesting take on it).
Debra disagrees that the voluntary/nfp sector should become more like business (after all didn’t business pretty much stuff up the economy?) and she warned against colluding (that word again) with the idea that the not for profit sector is unprofessional. On the contrary, she stated that governance is much stronger and more rigorous in the voluntary sector. Debra also spoke briefly about the Great Giving Campaign which also aims to move away from the idea of handouts, but the acknowledgement of generously given gifts, particularly as grants and foundations provide the most sustainable form of income in the UK for the voluntary sector.
With a final nod to the ACNC, Debra spoke highly of the UK Charities Commission, saying how welcome it was there, and not a body to be feared. It is completely independent of government, is there to protect the public, and is a good body.
Debra concluded with an apt quotation from George Bernard Shaw:
This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognised by yourself as a mighty one. Being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as I live it is my privilege – my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I love. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got a hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.
from Man and Superman 1903.
Debra reminded us that we don’t have to succumb to external pressures based on government policy where things really don’t make sense and don’t benefit not for profit organisations or their beneficiaries/clients. If you do get a chance to hear her another time when she is hear I would make an effort to do so.
Thanks to the Office for the Community Sector for including her in the Not for Profit Summit line-up.
What do you think about the potential for Big Society taking hold as part of the political agenda here? I look forward to your thoughts.