Jeremy Kendall: understanding the frenetic change of voluntary sector policy

Jeremy is an old friend of mine – and arguably the voluntary sector’s leading academic analyst. In anticipation of his new MA in Civil Society, NGO and Nonprofit Studies at Kent University, we’ve asked him to reflect on the public policy landscape. At the bottom you can find out about bursaries for NCVO members wanting to study on the MA.


jeremy_kendall_50pxI write my first Guest Blog for NCVO in the thick of the International Society of Third-Sector Research conference in Siena, Italy. The conference has over 600 participants from all over the globe discussing trends towards marketization and democratisation, and how these affect the third sector’s capabilities. In the midst of all this, my thoughts have turned to England: how does the situation at home compare with the experiences elsewhere? Under the last Government, the policy imperative to develop sector capacity was recognised and believed to provide a compelling cue for extensive State investment. As some of the traditional forms of support appeared to flatline, New Labour worked quite closely with the sector, and was often applauded for its efforts to do this. Yet many felt that the pace of change was too slow, not enough resources were finding their way to the ‘front line’, and stability and clarity of purpose actually went into reverse as initiatives proliferated.

Voluntary sector policy in England: a period of frenetic change
Yet, a comparative perspective which recognises the demanding nature of developing policy in this sphere should give us pause for thought. There have been implementation failures. By comparative standards, in England we actually witnessed a relatively dramatic rate of policy change, at least in terms of policy intentions and the design of new measures.  And we must surely recognise that the complex and sprawling character of the Modern, multi-level State often made it fiendishly difficult to convert rhetorical aspirations into practical measures, and to strike the right balance between national and local forms of support. I sought to analyse these issues in my own contribution to the conference (You’ll find it here, along with some other papers on voluntary sector and volunteering policy).

It hardly needs me to mention to this audience that the frenetic pace of change has both accelerated and changed direction over the past two years against the backdrop of the ‘Big Society’ project.  The Coalition Government, fuelled by an overwhelming antipathy to the very State machinery which New Labour favoured, now regards State support as part of the problem, rather than the solution. It has been cutting back or rationing public financial flows into many of the policy fields in which the third sector makes a vital contribution, especially welfare. Indeed, this Government is radically reconfiguring its whole approach to infrastructure. It has abandoned many New Labour initiatives, although others are actively being strengthened (the development of infrastructure around social finance and commissioning agendas are the most obvious examples of the latter).  Many organisations are effectively facing the policy equivalent of ‘shock therapy’ at precisely the time when the economic crisis is making it ever harder for citizens and businesses alike to offer sustained and reliable support.

What role for Universities in navigating this change?
As an academic based in a English University I might mention that we are experiencing some parallels to these experiences, with the turn to consumerist assumptions, and business models and techniques. Yet compared to the overwhelming majority of third sector organisations, Universities clearly tend to be remarkably wealthy and secure organisations. We need therefore to be asking ourselves: what can we do to strengthen infrastructure at such an uncertain and difficult moment?

I would start by suggesting that what the jargon refers to as the ‘epistemic’ resources Universities offer must be key: developing our knowledge of and for the third sector through multi-disciplinary research-led teaching which can help third sector organisations understand their own capabilities; strengths and limitations better. Compared to other knowledge-based organisations (think tanks, consultancies etc) where do Universities’ comparative advantages lie? I would emphasise three aspects. First, they should seek to provide an environment in which the critical intellectual imagination can be harnessed and developed, at some distance from the day to day pressures for instantaneous ‘delivery’. Second and relatedly, they should work to ambitious long term time horizons, fostering cumulative learning. Third, Universities have a responsibility to capitalise on their status as well connected, international and cosmopolitan institutions to ensure that the opportunities to learn from other countries are maximised.

How can Kent University help you? 
I am delighted to be able to finish this Blog with the announcement of a new initiative –  combining material financial and epistemic support for the sector, and in the spirit of the considerations I have outlined. This initiative, part of a broader partnership collaboration between SSPSSR and NCVO, means that  from September 2012 onwards, suitably qualified NCVO member applicants for our new MA in Civil Society, NGO and non-profit studies will be eligible for a special bursary scheme (see Panel).  We sincerely hope that this will bring the programme within the reach of  many who otherwise might not be positioned to develop their knowledge and horizons in this way, at a moment in the sector’s development when every opportunity to invest sympathetically must surely be seized.

Bursaries: find out more

For 2012/13, paid staff or volunteers from NCVO member organisations are being invited to apply for a limited number of bursaries to study on this MA (full time or part time). Successful EU-based candidates will receive a significant discount on the usual fee, paying £2,900 instead of the full fee (£4,900).

If you are interested please email the programme director Dr Jeremy Kendall, copying the SSPSSR Postgraduate administration office  with ‘NCVO-SSPSSR partnership bursary application’ in the subject line. Please identify yourself and the relevant  NCVO member organisation in the body of the email, and attach both a CV and a one page personal statement explaining your motivation and rationale for wishing to undertake this MA. The deadline for applications for the bursary programme is Monday 13th August. If you apply, please also keep Wednesday 15th August free in your diary for a visit to Canterbury, in the event that an interview is required.

Jeremy Kendall

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