MOONEY MartinBiting the hand: Is the voluntary sector “Still in the business of doing good?”
by Martin MOONEY for Northern Ireland Foundation
14 March 2016

A sunlit room in the new Ulster University building on Belfast’s York Street was the venue for a discussion of the role of the community and voluntary sector in contemporary Northern Ireland, as part of the Imagine! Festival of Ideas & Politics.

Billed as ‘a panel discussion between academics and representatives of the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland’, the presentations and conversations among audience members took new research from Ulster University researchers Dr Markus Ketola and Dr Ciaran Hughes to explore the challenges facing the sector today.

Dr Ketola, Lecturer at Ulster University’s Institute for Research in Social Sciences, opened the event with a summary of issues from a sceptical perspective. The sector had two main roles in post-conflict NI – peace building and service delivery. Government funds provided a significant proportion of many organisations’ finances, and a recent and ongoing shift from grant-aid to contracts went hand-in-hand with a frank acknowledgement on government’s part that the role of the sector was to ‘deliver government objectives’ (and not necessarily as equal partners).

Dr Ketola presented a sample of dissenting voices from inside the sector that described the perception of an overfunded, ‘puffed up’ realm where the involvement of ex-paramilitaries was an open secret and where procurement mechanisms favoured large organisations and acted to reinforce government control of community development initiatives.

Colm Burns, Chairperson of the Northern Ireland Open Government Network, was invited to reflect on the UU research. Colm suggested that procurement might well be a means of control, but what was being controlled was internal government activity rather than work out in the sector.

A bigger problem, he argued, was that while the vocabulary of outcomes-based accountability was increasingly common – and this spring’s new Programme for Government was expected to aim for an outcomes-focused approach — it wasn’t clear if procurement mechanisms and contracts between government and voluntary sector organisations would be outcomes based.

The crisis currently facing the Forum for Action on Substance Abuse (FASA) illustrated some issues around organisational growth, with a problematic evolution beyond voluntarism into employing staff, entering into government contracts, and so on. What distinguished some registered charities from private sector organisations focused on driving down costs (through, for example, employing staff on minimum wage)? Was an organisation that received 90 per cent of its funds from government, to deliver government policy, really a charity? Could such organisations be expected to bite the hand that feeds them?

The audience’s response to these reflections defended the sector to an extent, pointing out that Big Lottery Fund, to take one example, was moving towards an outcomes-based approach to funding organisations sustainably. And if it was true that the sector needed to be more self-critical, as both speakers had argued, it was also the case that matters were improving and there needed to be wider recognition of what the sector does well.

The UU’s Dr Ciaran Hughes wrapped things up by acknowledging that the research they had undertaken was only possible because the voluntary and community sector here was ‘a thinking sector’ that retained the ability to speak critically to government.

However, the recent developments they had studied suggested that there were only a few available responses to the increasing tension between the service delivery and the campaigning roles of the sector. Organisations could continue to try to make the status quo work for them and their clients. They could take ‘exit action’ and seek to withdraw from service delivery roles. Or there could be ‘a parting of the ways’, where it was accepted that service delivery and campaigning roles could not be undertaken by the same organisation.

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