A critical time in our evolution

Kathy EvansKathy Evans is CEO of Children England, NCVO members since 1996.

Symbiosis (n)

  1. interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both;
  2. a mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups.

Charities, voluntary groups and the public sector are symbiotic. In children’s services, a sector that Children England has represented for nearly 75 years, there is a symbiotic cycle which has spanned many centuries.

The cycle begins with newfound charitable zeal and invention: the filling of gaps in society’s fabric, taking action voluntarily out of moral conviction, in the knowledge that nothing will happen or change without it. As financial and moral support for voluntary practice grows, the cycle evolves into funding and referral partnerships between state and charity, and soon matures into lobbies for legislative reform, to incorporate our learning and values into the duties of the State.

What results is an idiosyncratic mixed economy of service provision in local communities, tasked with organising and delivering on the State’s obligations to its citizens. As that statutory framework and mixed service economy becomes embedded, too often practice (in both sectors) risks becoming institutionalised and self-referential – a bewildering combination of duplication and fragmentation across well-intentioned professional and voluntary efforts which are Byzantine in their complexity. As a result, gaps and cracks appear in our social fabric and service infrastructure, contributing to injustices, failures and vulnerabilities. And so new voluntary action is born. The oldest organisation among our members can date this cycle back to their beginnings at the time of the first Queen Elizabeth.

You need us as much as we need you

NCVO’s manifesto (PDF, 1.4MB) shows clearly that our symbiosis continues to this day, highlighting afresh the essential role and innovative capacity of the voluntary sector in its relationship with the public sector. I’d proffer that a suitable PR strapline for it as a set of calls to politicians would be “Because you need us as much as we need you!”. It’s an idea I would certainly agree with.

Many of the recommendations in the manifesto are echoed in Children England’s Declaration of Interdependence, developed with the TUC and launched last summer in the Financial Times. Support for the Declaration keeps growing. It backs calls in:

  • NCVO’s manifesto for Living Wage standards
  • the extension of Social Value requirements across our funding relationships
  • community empowerment at the heart of redesigning services
  • and, importantly, a call to fundamentally review public service markets and outsourcing.

However there is a certain sense of calamity, urgency and historic threat to the symbiotic relationship between state and voluntary sector ‘out there’. I hear it loud and clear among my members and indeed among our public sector colleagues in children’s services. And so my calls for change go perhaps further than NCVO’s manifesto.

A wider concern

The relentless severity of cuts to local authorities over the last five years simply cannot continue without whole service areas closing and children being abandoned.

Horror stories about Dickensian child poverty and family destitution prevail. Swathes of the remaining children’s centres and youth services face decimation in coming months.

These are problems so serious that our concern can’t simply be for the voluntary sector. The standards and duties of care for children that we have fought for are crumbling, and our challenge as symbiotic partners is to defend children’s rights and their public services, not simply to take them over.

Competitive versus collective

Market competition is eroding our collective resources and our sense of common cause.

This is an unsustainable way of allocating our resources. By rewarding ‘business success’ it entrenches rather than challenges existing business models, stifling our collective imagination to conceive of radical alternatives. Individual organisations can’t change competitive marketplaces by simply dropping out of them. We have collectively to agree to suspend competition as the primary means of decision-making, and knuckle down to sharing power, money and ideas.

There can be no ‘gain’ for the voluntary sector that comes at the public sector’s loss or at children’s expense. That’s the nature of symbiosis, or ‘interdependence’, as we like to call it.

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