Acevo do not represent the sector

I don’t blog much. I realised I was doing it to promote myself as a freelance trainer, and felt this was an insincere reason to be doing so. But I really let the pendulum swing too far the other way, so hopefully will be writing the occasional piece more frequently. The reason for today’s is to enable me to lower my blood pressure. I made the dreadful mistake of reading an Acevo press release trumpeting Stephen Bubb’s reaction to the election results.

I congratulate the Prime Minister on his reelection. He now has a solid mandate to deliver the real change our society needs.

What is the real change our society needs? Cuts to services seeking to prevent violence against women and girls?  More foodbanks? Workfare? £12bn in welfare cuts? The demonisation of refugees and migrants?

Please, don’t get me wrong, I would be condemning a partisan approach to any party in this context – it seems deeply inappropriate. I would happily criticise such people cosying up to Labour, UKIP or the Greens, not to mention the policies and ideologies of each of them (I was going to add the Lib Dems, but you’d need to find one first). Anyway, this change involves

…accelerating the public service reform agenda to give the poorest in our society real choice and care.

Stephen Stephen Stephen. Neoliberalism is just so 90s, you know? Just to translate the sentence, ‘accelerating the public service reform agenda’ means ‘deeper cuts and more privatisation’. I’d imagine that what the poorest in society want is not so much real choice, more being less poor. Do we really want a choice in which hospital to access, or just a hospital that is well resourced with staff who aren’t demoralised?

Mr Cameron has a mandate to deliver and we expect great things.

Well, the first part of the sentence clearly means “Stop protesting”, a strange attitude for someone in the sector that encompasses campaign groups. God only knows what these ‘great things’ are. Given that last year a Mr S Bubb said the following, one has to wonder where this somewhat bilious bout of panglossianism comes from:

“We are propping up vital services which you could argue should be part of the welfare safety net,” says Sir Stephen Bubb, head of the ACEVO umbrella body for charity chief executives. “That net is being cut and we’re trying to pick up the pieces at a time when it’s incredibly hard for charities to raise money.”

Sir Stephen also warns of a regressive hardening in approaches towards those in need.

“There are Victorian attitudes emerging about the deserving and undeserving poor and I see that in the political discourse,” he says. “I also see worrying signs of the state financially withdrawing from work that they would have readily accepted as their role a decade ago.”

But it seems this was some kind of terrible aberration, as his true feelings appear to be that:

Charities and social enterprises play a hugely important role in delivering high-quality, efficient NHS services, and a policy of enabling whoever is best-placed to deliver could see them do more, to the immense benefit of NHS patients and taxpayers. We need to seize that opportunity, and leave debates about privatisation where they belong – in the last century.

If the market is such a perfect allocative tool it seems reasonable to ask why charities should remain not for profit. If they could make money we could see exactly how well they are doing – the higher the profit the more successful they are, surely¹? And of course, all volunteers would have to be paid – donating your time is so last century.

There is a strange dichotomy at the heart of the Acevo agenda. They want to be both an arm of the state, delivering public services, and on the other hand need to be pro-privatisation and pro-market as an argument to lever this para-state status.

Not so long ago the way that charities arose and operated was by seeing a social need that wasn’t being met. They would say ‘We must do something about X, give us money to do so’ – the money coming from donations, grant making trusts or local/central government grants. Now groups are service providers. They are not identifying social problems and seeking to address them – they are chasing government agendas and competing to run services. You could say that this is just ‘the current climate’, ‘the modern funding landscape’ or so on, but what has been lost (and this is not just a point for Acevo) is any sense that individual charities and the sector as whole should be constantly working to abolish itself.

People did talk about this when I joined the sector – that, say, the ultimate aim for an organisation addressing poverty shouldn’t be to simply ameliorate the worst excesses of people’s exclusion from wealth, but to end poverty altogether. It still gets mentioned, but only as lip service. It’s hard to think of an organisation outside those engaged in medical research that takes seriously the need to challenge the conditions of their own existence.

This sounds utopian, but as Oscar Wilde pointed out progress comes from the achievement of utopias, from seeing the possibility of a better future and setting out to achieve it. When Stephen Bubb imagines the future it probably looks like a permanent birthday party for himself.

One problem with the day to day attitude to Bubb in and out of the sector is that too often it focuses on his character rather than the content of his actions and pronouncements. See for example the admittedly amusing spoof blog or Private Eye’s coverage of him (I was once asked if I were the author of the blog – on truthfully denying this I was met by a shake of the head and the observation that ‘there are so many potential suspects’). He does have issues to answer for personally – there are reasons why he is loathed by NHS campaigners – but this isn’t just about Bubb, it’s his organisation that is the real problem.

It’s not as if I’m against the principle of association – of course voluntary sector bosses have the right to club together to promote their interests, as do stamp collectors and racists. What annoys me is that they claim to speak for the sector – their tagline is The leading voice of the UK’s charity and social enterprise sector. Now, I’m aware that it’s a bit of a play on words, them being leaders and all, but the arrogance is breathtaking. You are not the voice of the sector, you are the representative body of a particular sectional interest². The clue is in your name. To make matters worse, they claim to speak for the sector and then wholeheartedly endorse a political agenda that seems at odds with both the aims and immediate needs of that sector.

One also has to ask why NCVO  don’t have a higher profile. You’d think their remit would be speaking for the sector, yet they seem to lose out to Bubb and Acevo when it comes to being quoted. Are they too timid? This was always a problem with Volunteering England. Having spoken to sector journalists they need a story, and knew that VE wouldn’t be saying too much of interest. I imagine the same thing is going on here – to misquote The Big Lebowski, from the point of view of a journalist, “say what you want about the tenets of Acevo, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

Meanwhile other groups with interesting things to say about the sector – the Association for Volunteer Managers, the National Coalition for Independent Action, NAVCA – go unheard.

¹ I have actually seen this argument being made in the US by an organisation many people may assume is not for profit.

²Actually ‘representative’ would itself be a dubious claim – do their members really support this stance? Of course, it’s possible that given their dwindling membership – that they blame on cuts – that the remainder are those who haven’t borne the brunt of the assault on the sector, or stand to win though the privatising agenda. I find it hard to believe however that chief executives who have been handing out redundancies over the last few years would appreciate the cheerleading for the forces that caused this.




Counting the cuts

I hesitated before posting this – I’m sick of the bad news myself, so don’t really want to be spreading misery. But anyway, there’s a new site crowd-sourcing the impact of local/central government cuts on voluntary organisations. Use it, pass it on – if we can’t stop things we can at least ensure that this assault on the sector doesn’t go down the memory hole:

If the Big Society stories could slow down a little, I’d appreciate it. K thx bai

Events have overtaken me. Every time I’d make some notes for a new blog post a new Big Society story would trump the last one. This wasn’t helped by my increasing anger and need to turn off news items that mentioned or debated the topic.

On those lines I should make a public apology to my flatmates; I did find myself shouting at a debate on ‘Ten o’Clock Live’, particularly at the charity boss they’d found, Shaun Bailey, whose views made more sense when it turned out he’d been a Tory electoral candidate. When I say sense, I meant more in terms of at least you knew why he was saying these things, even if they were awful.

If you can bear it, go to about 34mins into this video. If you don’t have the time (or the patience with Channel 4’s player) here’s a choice quote:

If organised volunteering collapsed tomorrow it wouldn’t make a big deal because private volunteering goes on all the time. Is there anybody here who’s babysat? Do you look after your neighbour’s kids, you kept your sister’s kids while they’ve been ill? You help the woman down the road that’s volunteering, it happens all the time.

We all know that informal volunteering is an intrinsic part of our communities. The idea though that this is what could/should run public services is stunningly ignorant. It would be interesting to know if his charity involves volunteers or not, whether there’s any management or co-ordination of this, and whether they’ve picked up on legal and good practice issues from Volunteering England and Volunteer Centres.

But maybe I’m wrong. Forget organisation, forget volunteer management, we’ve been wasting our time.

Well, the anger levels are rising again, so I’ll put this to one side and carry on with the rest of the blog – the cat gets confused when I start shouting at my computer screen.

Most of the fuss has been about cuts to voluntary sector funding. Quite rightly of course, as it is an absurdity to talk of voluntary action when so many local infrastructure bodies are being not so much cut as eviscerated. Blaming local authorities is laughable. Government spokespeople were so wide eyed and shocked, shocked! that councils drastically reducing budgets would do this that I considered exploiting this naivety – I’d be quids in through emails claiming to be a treasury official in a foreign government looking to transfer a large amount into a handy bank amount. It’s especially hollow given that bodies such as Volunteering England were cut by, er, central government.

Anyway the ball started rolling with Elisabeth Hoodless’ leaving present to the sector. I have to say, it’s not often I’ve agreed with her public pronouncements, but she did us proud this time. The story splashed across the media. Something we all knew in the sector entered the public consciousness.

Mind you she did spoil it a bit – according to the BBC ‘she backed a US idea that ties the funding of public bodies with the number of volunteers recruited’.

Even Volunteering England, which normally finds the fence its most comfortable perch, sounded a critical note. Chief Executive Justin Davis Smith pointed out in the same BBC report that organisations were “having their capacity to deliver, to recruit more, to train, to support their volunteers taken away from them”, although he still supported the ambitions of the Big Society.

Government was prodded a little, and some extra money was announced. The phrase ‘too little, too late’ is well worn, but it’s definitely apt here.

What we’re in danger of missing is that the funding issue, while egregious, is not the central problem with the Big Society idea. For me it’s the very concept of using voluntary action to replace public services.

The key question remains: who will do this? Who will have the time and expertise to run these services? Surely those people with the time and inclination are broadly already volunteering. Will such projects end up merely poaching volunteers from local Age Concerns, advocacy services, befriending projects?

Whether by design or happenstance, or perhaps design, the plan amounts to a new form of privatisation.

Firstly it’s a way of expanding market principles further into the social sphere. This is an issue I have always had with some forms of social enterprises. There does seem to be an ideological kernel behind the concept (supported as much by the Labour Party as the Conservatives) – there may not be private profit, but the idea of market discipline is central.

Will volunteer effort be used to undercut other potential suppliers? Where does this leave volunteers? Where does this leave people in what are already low paid precarious jobs?

Secondly, where local services run by volunteers fail to deliver, I can’t believe they’ll be brought back under the public sector. The government’s reaction will be, well, we tried that, valiant effort there by the plucky community groups, but time for the big boys to come in. Private companies like Serco will be circling like hawks.

I don’t think I’m being that cynical to say that it makes this agenda sound so much nicer to talk of community groups running services than the private sector.

And to back up the last point, just as I was putting this post together I saw this story on the BBC website:

David Cameron: End state monopoly over public services

David Cameron has said the government will set out plans to allow private and voluntary groups to run almost every kind of public service

It won’t come as much of a surprise to the more forensic reader, but I don’t support the ambitions of the Big Society.

Philip Pullman on the Big Society

The author was speaking last week at a meeting in Oxford on the County Council’s decision to axe almost half its libraries:

Nor do I think we should respond to the fatuous idea that libraries can stay open if they’re staffed by volunteers. What patronising nonsense. Does he think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea? Does he think that all a librarian does is to tidy the shelves? And who are these volunteers? Who are these people whose lives are so empty, whose time spreads out in front of them like the limitless steppes of central Asia, who have no families to look after, no jobs to do, no responsibilities of any sort, and yet are so wealthy that they can commit hours of their time every week to working for nothing? Who are these volunteers? Do you know anyone who could volunteer their time in this way? If there’s anyone who has the time and the energy to work for nothing in a good cause, they are probably already working for one of the voluntary sector day centres or running a local football team or helping out with the league of friends in a hospital. What’s going to make them stop doing that and start working in a library instead?

Especially since the council is hoping that the youth service, which by a strange coincidence is also going to lose 20 centres, will be staffed by – guess what – volunteers. Are these the same volunteers, or a different lot of volunteers?

This is the Big Society, you see. It must be big, to contain so many volunteers.

Full text here.

Do as we say, not as we do

Sometimes events satirise themselves.  The ‘Big Society Tsar’ is to reduce his volunteering hours in order to earn more money and ‘have more of a life’. In some ways it’s refreshing – usually politicians take a step back from responsibilities in order to spend more time with their family. It’s nice to hear one wanting to spend more time with their money.

Lord Wei was appointed by David Cameron as an unpaid government advisor on the Big Society last May, and is based in the Office for Civil Society.

According to The Guardian, “Whitehall sources said that when he was invited to take the role he had expected it to be remunerated but was told only the night before that it was a voluntary post and there would be no salary.” Mind you, I wouldn’t feel too sorry for him – he got a life peerage as part of the package, and it’s hard to imagine that he won’t be able to pick up some non-executive directorships.

The story does seem to highlight the absurdity of the wider-eyed visions of the Big Society. If the person at the top is finding it hard to make ends meet while giving up a substantial chunk of their time, and feels that doing so gives them no life, how are the rest of us meant to bear up?

While this story may have an amusement factor to it, another story from the last few days makes for much grimmer reading. Volunteering England have reported that 30 Volunteer Centres are facing closure or severe curtailment of capacity. To be honest, just from the VCs I’ve had contact with, I suspect the figure is even higher. I’m not looking forward to hearing the news come in of local authority spending settlements. While there is a proposed local infrastructure fund – £42.5 million over 4 years – it will be too little too late. Good organisations will have gone under by then, committed and knowledgeable staff moved on and local organisations left floundering. New groups will have to reinvent the wheel.

This of course follows Volunteering England itself losing over half its staff. The cutting of government funding for infrastructure bodies demonstrates the hollowness of the government commitment to volunteering. Volunteering needs support. Volunteer managers need support. Without bodies to pass on accumulated good practice – and legal guidance – new and old volunteer-involving bodies alike will be left to fend for themselves.

The Big Society and human nature

I’ve been reading around in preparation to write something in longer form about the Big Society. It’s taking me a while I’m afraid, but I thought I’d draw people’s attention to the essays the Government commissioned to tie in with the Giving Green Paper:
One paper in particular jumped out:

Geoffrey Miller, Psychology Department, University of New Mexico: Harnessing human nature for charity and volunteering: some ideas from evolutionary psychology

My eyes lit upon this article as I am somewhat sceptical about evolutionary psychology. I claim no great knowledge or expertise in the area, but (and perhaps this is the fault of the media) I do get the impression that a lot of the time a past we can only make educated guesses about is being used to explain current phenomena.

A notorious example was the assertion that girls innately like pink – the explanation being the female role in gathering red berries in prehistory.

Maybe it sounds plausible. We all know blue=boys and pink=girls right?

The problem is that it’s nonsense. It rests on the idea that there’s a biologically hardwired affinity between people with two X chromosomes and pink, while blue is more manly. Yet go back less than a hundred years and the reverse was assumed:

“There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

Ladies Home Journal 1918

“If you like the color note on the little one’s garments, use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention.”

Sunday Sentinel 1914

(Source: Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column)

The gender/colour idea is culturally determined.

And this seems to be a problem with the discipline as a whole. I’m not denying a historical, biological impact on our psyche; it just seems that there’s a desire to see this as trumping our current culture, economy and society, along with some bold claims that lack hard evidence.

Looking at the essay in question there is an assertion on an evolutionary basis for altruism, but really, this is just a guess, and we shouldn’t base public policy on guesses around prehistoric human activities that if true may have an impact on current behaviour that we can’t really judge. At the very least we’d need to look at more than one opinion on the roots of altruism (which is an interesting topic, even if I can’t see how short of time travel we can ever reach a conclusive answer).

However we don’t really need to worry about that as much of the article seems more about promoting a particular ideological agenda than anything else:

First, policy needs to acknowledge that in an efficient market economy, most of the power that individuals have to ‘do good’ depends on them acting morally as workers, consumers, and investors – not on the more conspicuous virtue‐displays of charity and volunteering.

Many social and environmental problems that charities try to resolve were exacerbated by government over‐regulation, subsidies, quotas, tariffs, monopolies, or failures to enforce property rights.

This of course has nothing to do with psychology or evolution, it’s just standard right-wing economics. You could also argue that many social and environmental problems that charities try to resolve were exacerbated – or perhaps caused – by market driven policies. Economic inequality and climate change being obvious examples.

It does seem to confirm my suspicions that many evolutionary psychologists seem to be seeking to justify the status quo by appeals to evolutionary causes.
If the author read this no doubt he would assume that I’m writing from a pro-big government, state socialist point of view. I’m not, I support neither the free market nor the state, though I must admit to wanting to keep the safety nets of the welfare state and similar reforms that staved off the worst aspects of an unequal society.

It’s been bad enough trying to fight compulsory or remunerated activities being defined as volunteering, try this for size:

Yet within the market economy, there is plenty of scope for moral virtues to improve human welfare ever further. Any workers doing their job with more skill, attentiveness, and integrity than strictly required by their employment contract are already ‘volunteering’ that extra labor for the common good – and these are pro‐social work values worth celebrating.

While there may be a case here – a pleasant chat with a person on a till can give a feeling of goodwill – it’s massively overstated. A worker putting in extra effort is more likely to be filling the coffers of their employer without any remuneration than anything else. God forbid anyone in a precarious low paid job just does what they’ve been paid to do. The inhuman monsters.


Another paper that did make me smile was the title of a paper by Stephen Howard, CEO, Business in the Community:

Great companies support communities through difficult times

Cynics might argue that they could start by paying their taxes…

A new start

Looking back I think it’s fair to say that I haven’t really seen this as a blog, more of an online presence.  However recent developments in the voluntary sector/volunteering world have been causing me great concern. I don’t really have a say in anything, so all that’s left for me is to at least speak out, even if it is to no one in particular.

So I’ll be blogging more regularly on issues related to volunteering and the big society over the coming weeks and months. I think the posts are likely to be opinionated, forceful, even angry at times, but won’t apologise for this – I think we need a bit more passion in the debate over the future of volunteering and the voluntary sector.

I should be clear that my criticisms of the big society are not party political. I had strong criticisms of many volunteering related proposals under the Labour government (for most of this time I was employed by Volunteering England, so had to temper my views in public), and indeed I do not support any political party, major or minor.