Wednesday 8 September 2010

History is our guide to the Future!

A brilliant breakfast meeting at ACEVO this morning. We had Professor Matthew Hilton of Birmingham University and Professor Bernard Harris of Southampton University to talk about historical evidence on the role of the sector and state and civic participation.

Matthew introduced a paper he has written that shows that there has been no decline in levels of civic participant since the war. Further he shows that there has been no "crowding out" of the voluntary sector by the State (in particular the welfare state as some feared). Certainly there have been changes in the way people participate and the sector itself has evolved and changed.

The paper "Civic Participation and social responsibility" 7 Sept 2010; NGOs in Britain Project, Birmingham University.

This evidence undermines the thesis of people like my friend Phillip Blond (in his book "Red Tory"). He has argued that civil participation has collapsed and the state has driven out independent and voluntary action. On that mistaken thesis an edifice of "Big Society" is being built. That is a dangerously mistaken premise and has serious implications for Government policy.

If civic participation has not dropped, if levels of volunteering are remarkably static how will Government increase it?

That is not to say Government should not encourage and empower community engagement; it should, but it something that requires concerted action between the third sector, state and communities. And it must be based on the reality of the lives of citizens not a romantic notion of civic participation, particularly at a time of state retrenchment.

Indeed, as the great report of The Young Foundation published this week shows, the assumption that if the State role declines or it withdraws then civic participation flourishes is not simply wrong but the opposite may happen, for example as it did in the States.

There is also something odd about a top down Government led approach to community empowerment. So far Big Society initiatives, like the national citizen service are entirely top down Government devised schemes where alternative ideas and approaches have not been encouraged. The pathfinder areas have chosen from the centre. Of course you have to start somewhere. But they could have done this through the third sector organisations who have the real experience of community organisation.

And a good discussion followed on all this with our invited audience of members and Peers (there is an important Lord debate in October on all this).

I had to leave to get to a meeting with Nat Wei at the Cabinet office where he outlined the next phase of the "Big Society" project and "Your Square Mile". All very interesting. Particularly to compare with the breakfast event. Apparently the "Town Hall Tour" will be spelling all this out. Being organised by DCLG and their Big Society Network it is directly modelled on the Obama Town Hall tours I'm told. Again, most interesting. Hope they have some good orators when community groups want to know why their local councils are withdrawing council funding. Nat Wei is an engaging, articulate and intellectual promoter of the project. He is a true believer. We shall see.

Nat has a basement office at the back of No 10. Last time I was there it was all rather bleak and joyless. It was where, appropriately, John Major wrote his memoirs. No pictures, I commented. Now he has three very good pictures from the Government Art Collection. They make all the difference!

On my way out a quick chat with Andrew Lansley MP on his GP commissioning ideas which we are discussing with the Royal College of General Practitioners, led by ACEVO member Hilary De Lyon. Then whisked off to The Guardian Public Sector Awards Judging Panel. A fun event done in style over lunch at The Globe Theatre. And it's grand to do judging and networking all at the same time! And no amount of champagne will winkle the names of winners out of me!

Finally a meeting of the ACF Board - a charity I Chair which is part of the Social Investment Business. And what could be more agreeable than doing the annual accounts and audit report.(This is ironic in case you ask!).

And in the spirit of the Londoner during the Blitz I soldiered around London in spite of Bob Crowe's best efforts to disrupt the Capital.

1 comment:

john mohan said...

On the question of crowding out, life is more complex than Philip Blond would suggest but we can't rely on charity registration data as Matthew Hilton's paper does - that data reflects the administrative practices of the charity commission rather than describing the numbers of charity formations.

We need an approximation to charity foundation dates. Work by Peter Backus in the TSRC / Centre for Charitable giving and philanthropy has extracted these from Charity Commission documentation. Trends since 1945 show a steady upward trend in the foundation of new charities, throughout the postwar period - this is despite the fact that the postwar growth of the welfare state is supposed to have crowded out voluntary initiative. More detailed analysis of the patterns is under way and will be published in due course, but it certainly does not appear to support the "crowding out" thesis.

John Mohan