Recently the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector (usual short, snappy title associated with our sector) published its third of four annual reports. The panel of independent experts, funded by the Baring Foundation, finds that the independence of the sector is increasingly threatened, both by a state that wants the sector’s delivery capacity but not its opinion and by self- censorship. The report finds that as resources have become scarcer and competition for them fiercer, we stop speaking out and saying anything that could be construed as criticism of our funders – after all, there is always another voluntary sector deliverer, grateful for the funding and probably less critical.
Why is this important? For 2 reasons, I think. As the report states:“a compassionate, healthy democracy needs an independent voluntary sector”. Particularly now as trust and engagement with politics declines and as the state retrenches it expects the Not-for-Profit Sector to do more. Additionally, the Sector has played a vital role in finding creative solutions to social problems – from Thomas Coram starting the first facility to care for and educate foundling children in the early eighteenth century to the development of food banks in the twenty-first. At a time of reducing public resource, this creativity is needed now more than ever. However, a relationship between the state, both local and national, has developed where we are merely deliverers of those services that statutory bodies need or want to commission. Concepts such as co-production and partnership working are being replaced by one of command and control. The recognition of our role in creating new solutions to current and emerging social problems seems to be largely unwelcome, whatever the rhetoric says. It is time we said no to commissions and commissioners that have this view. If you don’t like the commission, don’t take the money. For heaven’s sake, we didn’t need the Lobbying Act, we tend to gag ourselves nowadays!