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  • Voluntary action, the state and the market
  • Andy Benson (bio)

Government policy is inflicting serious damage on the voluntary sector

Voluntary action occupies a space within civil society that is distinct from both the state and the private sector - a space in which citizens come together freely to exercise self-determining collective action. Voluntary groups do not have to exist. They are an expression of citizen action, usually driven by compassion, concern and determination to make the world a better place. Taken together, they present a kaleidoscope of activity, creating a bewilderingly complex landscape. Groups vary in history, size, orientation, geography, activity, theme, specialism, aspiration, ways of working, efficiency, effectiveness and competence. Their fortunes also vary as they interact with the local and national state, the private sector, their peers within the voluntary sector and with their users and communities.

Voluntary action is political - though this is rarely acknowledged by the groups themselves - in that the choices that are made about activities, objectives and ways of working spring from ideological and political beliefs: about how things should be, and about how they are shaped by such matters as government policies, what is happening in communities, the power of markets or by ethical and moral values. Those who promote a radical leftist view of the value of voluntary action point to the aspirations to advance social justice; equality; liberty; conviviality; freedom from want; enfranchisement; and environmental sustainability. However, whatever the motivation and orientation, without the pluralism and vigour of this ‘ungoverned space’, democratic freedoms in society will be significantly curtailed. [End Page 71]

The world of voluntary action has not been shielded from the impact of neoliberal values and perspectives as a result of successive New Labour and Coalition government policies, especially in the context of cuts to public services and the increased prominence of the private sector in delivering what services remain. This impact has been particularly severe on - and damaging to - voluntary organisations that deliver services to people and communities, for these are seen by government and politicians as the groups that can be most useful in divesting or diluting state responsibilities for welfare provision and other services relating to social protection.

The place of voluntary services in the ‘welfare settlement’

Voluntary services have, of course, existed for decades, even centuries, and, indeed, many were part of the inspiration behind the formation of the welfare state. But after the welfare settlement at the end of the second world war, the role of voluntary services changed: it came to be seen as doing the things that government could not, would not, or should not, do. These roles included: complementing - not substituting for - public services and entitlements; finding new ways for reaching excluded groups and aiding access to mainstream services; offering services that have to be independent (such as advice and advocacy); and commentating on and thinking critically about public services and state action. To fulfil these roles effectively voluntary groups have to be independent, self-determining, and free to decide on their activities in collaboration with their users and communities. If a voluntary group becomes a servant of the state this unique role is compromised.

But during the past two decades the voluntary sector has been drawn into processes that have undermined such independence of thought and action. Tony Blair argued that people don’t mind who runs public services as long as they are good; and this populist statement of a neoliberal position has become a prominent part of the narrative within the UK voluntary sector in recent years. The outsourcing and privatisation implied by this viewpoint have been seen as an opportunity not a threat and many voluntary associations have become embroiled in the world of contracted out services. But this has been at the expense of a number of important principles: that some responsibilities must rest with the state, including guarantees of freedom, social justice, the rule of law, democratic governance and accountability; and that it should act as custodian of our collective human needs and their protection. The ability to [End Page 72] fulfil these functions requires legislative powers, political and moral authority, effective mechanisms to extract transparency and accountability, and adequate resources. Voluntary services are...


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pp. 71-82
Launched on MUSE
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