Heard but not heeded: lessons for the UK from cutting the Canadian VCS

One of the great things about the NCVO/VSSN Research Conference is meeting old friends with war stories from another time and another place. Peter Elson‘s time and place is Canada in the mid 1990s. On the basis that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, I urge you to read and reflect upon this guest blog.


peter_elsonKarl kindly asked me to write up a brief profile of the cuts which hit the voluntary sector in Canada with a vengeance between 1994 and 1996 and the response, or lack thereof, of the voluntary sector.  It appears that senior bureaucrats from the Federal government have been crossing the pond to advise Whitehall on cost cutting and other things Canadian so it only seem s fair to hear a perspective from the trenches.  One person’s hero is another’s villain and all that.

If Whitehall does follow suit you can expect the following to happen:

  • Setting of non-negotiable and ambitious cost-cutting targets
  • The establishment of a central cost control office to eliminate any side deals or budget enhancements, regardless of the political payoff
  • Budget consultations to appear amenable, but to no discernable effect   – in Canada the term “heard but not heeded” was coined to reflect this trend
  • Divide and conquer – cuts to some but not all organizations to create the illusion that across-the-board cuts were not coming – they were and did – basically core funding was eliminated.
  • Reduced transfers to local authorities. In Canada’s case significant decreases in health and social transfers to provinces was the order of the day
  • Reductions through salaries and redundancies in the civil service, creating a climate of low morale, uncertainty and staff turnover
  • Regardless of the number of criteria established to evaluate where cuts can be made, it’s all about the money
  • Expect a transformation from citizen-based project funding to service -based contract funding.  Don’t expect to be paid to be a representative organization and engage citizens – just deliver the goods
  • Look for a means such as tax measures to encourage the voluntary sector to look to the “market” (e.g. donations and service contracts) not government, for funding.

What the UK voluntary sector needs to do:

  • Keep your head up – keeping your head down with the expectation that cuts will not affect you is likely naïve. Many Canadian voluntary organizations tried to do this in the mid 1990s to no avail
  • Act with solidarity – resist attempts to divide and conquer and present a unified front at both a national and a local level. This may take the form of policy positions, but it could extend to organizational mergers.
  • Something is always negotiable – the way funding cuts are implemented can be as harmful as the cuts themselves.  If you have to adhere to the ends, negotiate the means
  • Monitor the consequences of cuts – there will be plenty of unintended consequences and the voluntary sector is in the best position to monitor them.
  • Everyone will be affected by severe budget cuts across all sectors – it will be important to keep this in mind, rather than thinking that the voluntary sector is alone in facing adversity
  • Know who your friends are – the voluntary sector has allies in every walk of society, business and government – stay connected.  That said, don’t expect good connections to be a defense against  across-the-board budget cuts

Peter Elson PhD is Senior Research Associate in the Institute for Nonprofit Studies, Mount Royal University, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. His research focuses on voluntary sector-government relations. He has written High Ideals and Noble Intentions: Voluntary sector-Government Relations in Canada which will be published by the University of Toronto Press in December, 2010. The book contains a detailed analysis of Paul Martin’s Program Review and a comparative analysis of developments in Canada and England.

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