Roles fit for heroes
Gordon Brown wants to put the values of the voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors at the heart of his vision for Britain. His approach marks a subtle shift away from that of his predecessor. By Patrick Butler
When Gordon Brown speaks of the voluntary sector enabling ordinary people to do extraordinary things, it is individuals like Erinma Bell that he has in mind. Five years ago, Bell helped set up Carisma, a community campaign group to tackle gang violence and improve life chances for young people in the inner Manchester area of Moss Side, where she lives. She exemplifies what Brown calls the unsung army of ‘decent, dedicated people quietly at work’ improving their neighbourhoods – in her case, tackling inequality, crime and social breakdown.
Bell is featured in Brown’s book, Britain’s Everyday Heroes, published this week. As unpaid chair of Carisma, she spends two days a week as a volunteer. Brown clearly finds her response to personal trauma inspirational – she set up the group after witnessing a gang shooting. It is not just Bell’s commitment and moral purpose that you feel Brown admires but also the values and aims of the organisation she created.
On its website, Carisma states that it is ‘set up by the community, for the community, serving the interests of the community, accountable to the community’. It links existing voluntary groups in the area and provides a united local voice to government and local authorities; it identifies local needs in the areas of health, crime, employment and education, and provides a bridge between existing service provision and young people and families.
This concept of civic enterprise – active citizens operating outside, but in partnership with, statutory authorities – underpins Brown’s vision for the voluntary and community sector. It is a vision of ordinary people and volunteers who help run their local community, campaign to achieve social change, set up social businesses, and give voice to marginalised people. Brown appears to be suggesting that this is where fresh, relatively untapped sources of civic energy lie, not just through formal political parties or local government.
Some read the announcements as a distinctively Brownite take on the role and potential of the voluntary sector, particularly on the issue of public service provision. While Tony Blair was fascinated by the idea of charities and social enterprises as contract providers of public services in competition with the state, Brown, this argument goes, sees them as partners with the state, influencing services.
The third sector review final report is clear that the service provision agenda has not been ditched, but it also expands the idea of what charities’ social role might be, and emphasises that small, non-service delivery charities and community groups must be supported. ‘The idea of mass transfer of services, which was a characteristic of the Blair government, is not going to be there any more,’ says Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. ‘Brown is interested in focusing on the third sector’s role in shaping public policy and representing user views.’
But Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo), says the report endorses an expanded role for the sector in public service delivery. He argues that service delivery only enhances the sector’s independent voice and influence, saying: ‘There is no inherent conflict between [tendering for] service delivery contracts and campaigning freely and effectively.’
The report sets out the government’s vision of how it will support the full range of third sector activities over the next decade. There are five main areas for action: enabling campaigning and giving a voice to diverse communities and groups; strengthening communities by providing funding to encourage grassroots enterprise and volunteering; transforming public services by building up capacity of third sector providers of public services; encouraging social enterprise; and developing a third sector evidence base and skills strategy.
Another Brownite element will be its focus on the campaigning role of the third sector. Brown noted in his recent governance green paper that many people were eschewing political parties and investing their activist energies in single-issue campaigning groups such as Make Poverty History. There will be pressure on the Charity Commission to make it easier for charities to campaign on political issues, and investment in finding ways to enable local voices to be heard.
Community voice will be matched with cash. A local endowment fund will see the creation of independent foundations, dispensing grants to small community organisations, and the release of local authority assets to community groups. There will, understandably, be work to improve relationships between local authorities and the community sector.
• The third sector review final report is available at www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk