Independence as a Principle of Voluntary Action - Developing a new story about who we are: the challenge for Voluntary action in Northern Ireland

Nick Acheson

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    The importance of independence as a principle of voluntary action: Independence, it is argued, is fundamental to the principle and practice of voluntary action and fundamental to the good society. Independence means, both a relative freedom from constraint and the freedom to “think, experiment, to uphold values and to challenge”. It operates at three interlocking and mutually reinforcing levels:1. it means individual organizations retaining the ability to set their own objectives and manage their own affairs.2. For value-based organizations independence also implies the ability to express those values in public by exercising the freedom to combine with others to represent collective interests of citizens in wider society.3. It depends on the effective telling of a wider story about its role in society that goes beyond a narrow defence of sectional interests and that links independence of voice with the broader interests of society as a whole. The threat:Market driven reforms to the welfare state combined with austerity budgets carry three risks:• Co-optation becomes a threat when partnership structures where voluntary agencies have a seat at the table are ignored or bypassed. • Instrumentalisation becomes a threat when voluntary agencies are seen wholly from the perspective of what they can do for government as in the shift from grant in aid to contracts.• Incorporation occurs when the identity of voluntary agencies becomes submerged in the government programmes they are helping to deliver.Resistance requires voluntary and community organizartions to have the collective capacity to resist external pressures determining their role and purpose and have the opportunities to make alternative collective acts of self-definition stick.The Northern Ireland challenge:Current Executive policy is pushing further neo-liberal reform of public services in the context of frozen or reducing budgets, while the main Assembly political parties show little interest in a wider role for voluntary action. A picture familiar from other parts of the world experiencing similar reforms is made more difficult in Northern Ireland by the communal nature of politics and the legacy of an earlier stage in the peace process. Voluntary agencies are increasingly seen for what they can do, not who they are or represent. The evidence points to five main issues:• The switch to building relationships on the basis of public procurement models from a trust-based partnership model;• The need to drive down costs is making collaboration on chosen terms harder and forcing organizations to become much more competitive;• Instead there has been a loss of control over the kinds of collaboration organizations are free to enter, excluding arrangements that do not meet immediate government funders’ objectives.• An ideological turn in some government departments towards a much narrower and more instrumental view of the role of voluntary organizations in public policy, driven in part by the role of political advisors and in part by what one informant identified as the ideological preferences of civil servants.• An atmosphere of fear and timidity among organizations coupled with a lack of capacity in the sector as a whole to develop new stories on what voluntary action is for. While not complete, the evidence shows processes of co-optation, instrumentalization and incorporation all well advanced. There is an urgent need to build on opportunities for voluntary and community organizations to develop the capacity to create a new story about who they are and what they represent that goes beyond delivering public services and supports collaboration and coalition-building based on shared values and overlapping missions.
    Original languageEnglish
    PublisherUnknown Publisher
    Number of pages17
    Publication statusPublished - 5 Jul 2013


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