News and Comment

If charities are increasingly playing the role of public services providers, who is left to play the role of charities?

Friday 15 November 2013

It was amusing to note that the collective déjà vu among participants at the start of an interesting RSA roundtable discussion last week entitled “Where next for the Big Society?” While the general consensus seemed to be that people hadn’t heard the particular phrase for a while, there was also acceptance that although the term the ‘Big Society’ may have fallen out of use, its principles have not.

And so the discussion moved on to familiar but important territory: how can citizens be encouraged and empowered to do more; how can collaboration between different parties be best facilitated; and what is the role should charities (or civil society, as is the current term du jour) play in all this.

On this latter point, it’s clear that charities are in something of a ‘dammed if they do, dammed if don’t’ position at the moment. An ever increasing number are delivering ever increasing amounts of public services – 20% in 2008 and 31% in 2010 according to the National Survey of Charities and Social Enterprises, no doubt much more now. On the face of it, this is no bad thing. Why shouldn’t charities put some of their specialist, some would say unmatched, knowledge, skill, and goodwill to use by becoming more directly involved in public service provision? Surely turning down the opportunity to help those they’ve pledged to would be the very definition of uncharitable?

Yet embracing this opportunity has invited challenging questions about what makes charities different from other organisations who do similar work. The Charity Commission itself warns that members risk reputational damage by choosing to deliver services previously supplied by the state: “others may now view you as being too close to the public body that funds you”. Those who subscribe to this view feel that the charities’ independence and ability to “speak truth to power” is compromised when Government contracts become a significant source of their income. As Nick Seddon of Reform has put it: “There’s a bit of a feeling of ‘he who pays the piper call the tune’.”

It is however worth reminding ourselves that many of our biggest and most respected charities significantly predate the creation of the Welfare State, and as such have been providing what we now consider to be ‘public services’ long before the Government did. Likewise we mustn’t neglect the obvious – charities are in a governance and legal sense – unique. The work they do must benefit the public. They must be registered with and regulated by the Charity Commission; and they must confirm to non-profit making principles.

Nevertheless, there are a number of legitimate concerns, both inside and outside the sector, about charities’ capability to perform their ‘core duties’ alongside the increased public service delivery role now required of many of them. Traditionally charities have been organisations that drive innovation, assess and meet emerging needs, and campaign for potential improvements in policy or practice to be made. This is as much a capacity as an independence issue, and in the current climate we should consider whether charities have the time and the resource to play both roles.

Recently OPM has been working separately with two major charities, Action for Children and 4Children. Both organisations are doing great work helping communities that have taken ownership of their local Sure Start children’s centres to deliver services. There are clear and considerable benefits to an environment where communities are able to own a public service and specialist charities provide it. However, there might also be some unintended consequences posed by this scenario. For instance having numerous providers and owners working to deliver the same services, often in the same area, could potentially lead to complicated logistical problems such as the compatibility between different training regimens or qualifications. Furthermore, this situation might be exacerbated by the resources present in different localities, as there is bound to be a difference in the quality and quantity of charitable provision from one place to another.

We must also not forget that charities are increasingly forced to compete with one another to win contracts to run public services. While competition undoubtedly drives up quality and professionalism in some cases, it can also lead to some smaller charities losing out to the big national charities who have more resources to deploy in developing high quality bids for work.

It is good to see in this instance, that some charitable grant funders – such as the Cripplegate Foundation who among other efforts, fund the innovative Islington Giving campaign which OPM recently evaluated – are deliberately trying to divert funding to smaller charities who they feel are critical for reaching disadvantaged communities but may not have the resources to compete for big contracts.

It would seem crucial that at a time when the charities face overt criticism – (for example the recent furore over chief executive pay) and possible curtailing of their political influence (as is possible under the currently ‘paused’ ‘Lobbying Bill’) – to remind the public of the sector’s very best attributes. This cause is not best served by talk of ‘scaling up’, as important as that might be, but by to excuse the cliché, getting back to basics.

As Dame Clare Tickell of Action for Children, one of the speakers at the RSA event, told OPM last year:

“One of the voluntary sector’s great strengths has always been that it doesn’t wait for commissioners to commission. Instead, it responds and demonstrates with solutions based in real time. In order to retain our independence and commitment to our beneficiaries, we need to be making sure that we are able to demonstrate that we are continuing to do this.”