Thursday, 20 May 2010


University life has a rhythm of peaks and troughs. You notice the change most in the library computer rooms. No longer is there screen after screen of facebook and you tube; replaced instead with complex looking graphs and charts of formulae which just looking at make me sigh with relief I chose the humanities all those years ago. Soon though it wil all be empty apart from a smattering of Phd students. The rest of us will have our feet up on the kind of tropical beach we try to visualise in our darkest times.. or more likely be working to finance the next years study (and don't get me started on tuition fees!).

For my part I'm just under halfway through my essay on the states approach to the voluntary sector. My task is to evaluate two thesis. One that the state is using the voluntary sector to save money on service delivery. The other that the state pragmatically recognises that the voluntary sector is just inherently better at delivering certain services.

There is plenty of topical material on this as despite (as suggested in earlier posts) greater government engagement with the sector as providers of services being the thrust of policymaking for over a decade it has now been all repackeged with the label of 'Big Society'. This is clearly for me quite a bad step as academics have been urging a more cautious approach to the merits of the sector. To be sure voluntary organisations do possess many advantages but there has been an over-stereotyping of the sector as 'innovative', 'flexible', 'responsive' and various labels which under scrutiny take on a more ambiguous complexity.

One issue issue now is whether we can really call the voluntary sector voluntary. I was on the receiving end of a friendly rebuke from a former colleague last year for using the term voluntary sector rather than the nom de jour of 'third sector.' Why the change? In the embrace of the state the sector has changed, become more professional and buracratic. 'Social enterprise' is another term which problematizes what we thought we knew about the sector the term enterprise implying that the profit motive is now no bar from membership of the sector.

Interestingly social care is at the fore-front of all this. The reason being that barriers to entry are low compared to say healthcare which requires considerable capital and expertise. Individual Budgets also present an opening for the sector to grow, particularly social enterprises.

My conclusions are not yet drawn, but my feelings are that there is indeed a need to be cautious and to not simply accept soundbites and stereotypes, but to look under rocks, prod and poke aropund and ask awkward questions.

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