Are we backing a Trojan horse?
Wednesday July 12, 2006
Some public managers aren’t averse to the ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ playground taunt. It was heard last week at the Local Government Association’s annual conference as the case was made for giving councils more power. Civil servants are no good – look at the Home Office debacle. We, council officials, are miles better – look at our performance ratings. Give us their functions.
This is classic divide and rule, dangerous for the public sector as a whole. You also hear a variant of it from the voluntary sector. Public managers have failed – look at their record on prisons, probation, social care, job advice. It is time to let the third sector do the job.
Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo), is an exponent of this view, and you hear it from chief executives of the big registered social landlords. They want public money but think they are better at spending it than public officials.
Ultimately, it’s a naive and probably self-defeating stance to take. When identifiable rightwingers say public servants are no good, you know they intend to denigrate government in order to shrink it. But when people who are ostensibly progressives join the bandwagon, you wonder whether they realise they too are sapping public confidence in public purposes and the taxation needed to achieve them, whether in-house or on contract.
The third sector’s true colours have lately been the subject of debate. Do big and businesslike non-profit organisations share some fundamental genetic code with public bodies, or are they private sector companies in disguise? The balance does seem to have been shifting in the latter direction.
Bubb, who has turned his shoestring operation at Acevo into an influential player on the Whitehall stage, likes to use extreme language in advancing the cause of his members, but as a result it gets harder and harder to see just what moral attributes they retain to separate them from the executives of for-profit operations. And if they really are the hot entrepreneurs they are painted, why not go off and make millions?
Are charities a Trojan horse? If the game is about replacing state with private sector provision, then dishing out contracts to non-profit organisations may be a holding operation, or tactic. Once inside the walls of social and employment services, let alone health, out of the belly of the third sector will pour real profit seekers. Cynics say Blairite ministers know this, but it suits their political reputation to insist that they want ‘social’ rather than ‘free’ enterprise.
That’s the strength of a broadside against the non-profits sponsored by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), written by Steve Davies, a Cardiff University researcher linked to the Union Ideas Network – a group, to judge from its website, that is more interested in factual studies than ideological tripping.
Of course, the PCS has an interest to defend, and of course its socialist general secretary, Mark Serwotka, is a throwback to a bygone age. But that doesn’t diminish the force of Davies’s questions. Is there reliable evidence that non-profits do a better job than government itself? How can big charities and non-profits operating across the whole of England or even the UK claim to bring local knowledge to bear?
The PCS, with members in jobcentres facing large-scale loss of jobs, is particularly interested in the government’s plans for reforming incapacity benefit and the future of the New Deals. Davies’s paper asks whether it is wholesome that charities and profit-making companies are so close, in the trade association that campaigns for more contracts to be let by the Department of Work and Pensions.
Part of the answer has to be: that depends on the governance and accountability arrangements for these non-profits. Who do they belong to? What is the nature of their accountability? Answers to those questions, in turn, ought to be addressed by their regulator. But the Charities Commission has not, till now, been a proactive body and has chosen not to ask taxing questions about governing bodies, appointments procedures and ‘representativeness’ in the boardroom. The state’s other charities watchdogs are hand-in-glove with the Blairite reformers.
If the response is: why worry about governance, what matters is performance and the market will sort that out, you have as good as admitted that these contractor-charities are not really that much different from private companies.
· David Walker is editor of the Guardian’s Public magazine.
· Steve Davies’s report is at www.pcs.org.uk