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The voluntary sector must be preserved as a space for innovation

                                                                                                                                                                     Charlotte Weinberg

Currently, the entire criminal justice system is undergoing enormous change. Some say it’s the greatest change in 100 years. These changes echo throughout not only criminal justice, but the whole voluntary sector- much of which faces similar issues- to contract or not to contract, to merge, to close, to offer fewer services and narrow a focus or to join with others and spread the impact of what we do. It’s a moment in which many organisations are asking serious and important questions about the role, responsibility and core functions of the voluntary sector. Along the way, we are lucky to be supported by Action for Prisoners’ Families, Clinks, the Arts Alliance and the Criminal Justice Alliance. All these umbrella bodies help us to think and act appropriately in the face of the threats and opportunities we face as both specialists and voluntary sector organisations.

For Safe Ground, the importance of the voluntary sector is multiple and based on a variety of inescapable truths:

  1. The origins of the voluntary sector date to the middle ages. Before the Reformation, the Guilds and Liveries of the 14th century were the early origins of the Diggers, traces of which led to the development of the Labour movement and ultimately, the Welfare State.
  2. Our relationship to the state is ‘voluntary’: we do the work we believe needs doing, not just that deemed necessary by policy; and, people have a voluntary relationship with us, choosing to engage with us because they want to.
  3. The voluntary sector includes large, high profile organisations like Oxfam and the NSPCC; as well as lesser known organisations like Safe Ground. The work of the voluntary sector is, vitally, to innovate- our work is needs led and that is what separates us from the ‘market’ or Government agendas and policy drives. Our ability to make frontline impact with frontline presence is our USP- not our scale, our Health and Safety or Risk registers (although we have those too).

Today, The Office for Civil Society defines the voluntary sector as “the place between the state and the private sector”. I offer an alternative definition – people pooling skills and resources to do what works with what’s to hand and to find ways of adding value- like the collaboration between English PEN and the Tricycle. A funder recently described the role of the voluntary sector to me as “agitating for change in a way no other sector can”.

In my twenty years of experience, communities are usually concerned with efficiency, quality of service and, perhaps most importantly, the quality and consistency of relationships that services offer. ‘Scaling up’ and the risk management of ‘complex needs’ are not conducive to effective relationships, joined up practice or the evolution of services based on what people say they want, need or value.

The tendency for voluntary sector organisations to become further involved in the direct delivery of public sector contracts (be it in health, criminal justice, education or employment) dilutes and diverts our capacity to innovate. Potentially, this means that public sector contract delivery will be fulfilled at the expense of community led ways of working. What came first- the ‘market’ or the people we work with?

The voluntary sector it is the lifeblood that pumps innovation, dissent and critical friendship through the veins of the public and private sectors. It is aptly described in the Janette Winterson excerpt chosen by Patience Agbabi at a recent event I went to at the Tricycle Theatre:

“A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is… a language powerful enough to say how it is.”

The voluntary sector is society’s poetry- a tough language with which to speak truth to power. Cut out its’ tongue and beware the silence that will follow.

Comments

  1. Gwyneth Boswell says:

    Beautifully written and powerfully expressed, Charlotte. I fully endorse your view. Gwyneth Boswell

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