Last week Gordon Brown suggested that life after politics will not see him slide into a high-profile job at the World Bank or the IMF, but a turn to 'charity or voluntary work'. My fear is that the current policy outlook jeopardises the existence of this charitable future, or at best transforms it beyond recognition.
On the face of it, the political consensus forming around the need to ‘strengthen the voluntary sector’ bodes well for charities and community groups. All of the main parties have put forward measures which affirm their commitment to the sector, from Labour’s Social Impact Bonds, through the Lib Dems’ increase on gift-aid payouts to the Conservatives’ Big Society Bank. The charity sector already receives one third of its income from the state, and this looks set to rise under any future government.
So why the concern? The cynic within me sees this newfound enthusiasm for voluntary sector engagement as a neat way of divorcing a future government from the looming problem of public service spending cuts, while reaping the anticipated rewards of a ‘change’ agenda which 'returns power' to the hands of communities.
The idea is that money can be saved through outsourcing to charities and communities, under the guise of ‘inclusive’ government. This is already underway: public service contracts currently make up around 65% of the voluntary sector’s statutory income.
Yet by asking charities to compete for public sector contracts which they lack the infrastructure to deliver, policy falls short of the substantive support that the voluntary sector will need if it is to play the starring role that the three major parties have assigned to it. In the context of a battle for the future of affordable public services, the current measures seem analogous to handing David a slingshot and sending him forth to meet Goliath.
As highlighted by recent ippr work on 'Capable Communities', charities add value where other service delivery mechanisms cannot, owing to their niche, local expertise and their independence from top-down targets and constraints. To couple simple, finance-based policy to an expectation that charities will transform into slick, area-wide providers of target-hitting public services is to inhabit the grey area between naїvety and negligence.
The new government will need to sit up and do some serious thinking about the scale, process and viability of this proposed transformation or risk selling an expectant and dependent public woefully short.