Thoughts from the NCVO political conference (part 1)

Last week I chaired a session on new media at the NCVO political conference. I stayed around to listen to the final Q&A session, a question time-style panel debate with Shaun Bailey, Rushanara Ali, Peter Oborne, and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

My ears pricked up as the chair opened with a particularly interesting future-focussed question: As we reach the end of a particularly turbulent political period, what's next?

Consensus amongst the panel was that we are not at the end of anything; it could in fact be the beginning of, as Yasmin put it, 'a baffling and destructive period'. She talked about a tangible sense of disenchantment with domestic politics, coupled with international chaos (see drivers on falling engagement in formal politics, the rise of single issues, and trust in institutions).

And she had a strong question back to the sector – in this time of disenchantment, can VCOs afford to be a-political anymore? Do we have to become more political? It added a useful perspective I think on the recent debates on the political role of charities prompted by Helena Kennedy (who has chaired an advisory group on campaigning and the voluntary sector).

Last updated at 15:08 Mon 18/May/09.
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Good blog Megan, I thought the panel’s comments on being at the beginning of a new period in politics were particularly interesting in the light of NCVO’s recent strap line change.

The fact that we are now talking about voluntary and community organisations at the heart of civil society may lead us into new political terrain.

Geoff Mulgan hinted at this in his Hinton Lecture which followed the Political Conference

In his speech he talked about the fact that “for a generation the dominant debates have been about organisational form – how to achieve better legal recognition, fiscal recognition, a place at the table”. It seems to me that the issues that we now have to wrestle with are more about the impact that issues like environmental sustainability, new technology, restrictions on civil liberties and the widening gap between rich and poor have on our organisations – just as 3s4 and Geoff’s Carnegie Inquiry has outlined

I was also interested that Peter Oborne believed that civil society was at the heart of most of the big political issues currently facing our society. And he issued a call to all delegates to help him find out more about our sector and the challenges facing it.

Seems to me that there are opportunities for us to explore some of these questions in more depth with opinion formers across the political spectrum …

Karl's picture

Karl

Third Sector Foresight

Geoff Mulgan’s point about focussing on institutional structures and forms has been echoed elsewhere in academic debates about ‘ownership’ – ie which sector are you in? This has arguably led to what some believe to be futile debates about independence, arguing that we should instead recognize that interdependence is the dominant paradigm in the mixed economy of welfare.

You’ll all know the blurring of the boundaries argument: well, academics like Ralph Kramer argue that the sector is an artifical construct, and that the notion of a sector is only really useful for political lobbying purposes. Those who have been around a bit might know of a paper by Diana Leat and Perri 6, who argued that the notion of the voluntary sector was actually created in the 1980s by a couple of policy entrepreneurs.

So, where does this lead me (I say me as these are personal views, not those of my employer)? Well, it might suggest that we are still focusing far too much on forms and boundaries. Social enterprise springs to mind here, as do faith based organisations, and their treatment by public policy. It might also suggest that the independence debate in its current form is overdone, though I would still recognize that there are substantive practical issues around how you provide welfare services in the mixed economy. It has implications for a regulatory world that is neat and tidy: the future would seem to be about hybridity, about messy organizational forms that are difficult to allocate to a sector or typologies. And finally, it of course emphasizes governance above government. But I wonder how much our notions of governance are dependent upon the big state, which is the current paradigm? I think all these ideas need to be thought through in the context of a smaller state, as that would seem to be the way that the political pendulum is now swinging.

Just suppose that The Enlightenment has ended, and that we are entering a new era. What would that look like?

We would be nostalgic about the old paradigm (democratic government, freedom of the individual, repect for private property), but increasingly aware that it is no longer relevant. If the basic building block of The Enlightenment – the nation-state – were to be dissolving, then what would replace it?

One answer is the post-modern supra-national institution, such as the EU. However, people have a need to belong something more intimate, which is why we are likely to see the parallel development of communities.

To me, the big question is how those communities ought to be organised. One view – a view that I have some sympathy for – is the regionally based community that is grouped around a city attractor.

If so, then the voluntary sector has much to offer in this world as it is already community based rather than institutionally based.

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How will this affect your organisation? Have you considered it during your strategic planning? Can you share any interesting relevant links?

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