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December 2, 2009

Third sector representation needs rethink

The Scottish Government chooses to regard activity outwith the public and private sectors as lying within the third sector.  However the Govt’s analysis falls short of acknowledging the third sector’s diversity and the presence of distinct and separate voices that need to be heard.  As a consequence, and as a recent discussion paper from Senscot argues, the existing arrangements for representing the third sector are no longer fit for purpose.

It is useful to think of our modern mixed economy as comprising 3 systems; the first, private and profit driven; the second, for the planned provision of public services; and the third, citizen driven – working for the common good.  This third system or sector is really a disparate collection of sub sectors with their own histories and cultures – but all with an identifiable common purpose to work for social justice.

    To engage seriously with the Govt, the private sector and the wider public – the third sector needs a representative body, so that when necessary it can speak with a single voice. The primary task of this body is the development and promotion of third sector policy – involving a continuous dialogue with member organisations as they adapt to changes in wider society.
    This short paper comes out of the view that the present arrangements have lost touch with and cannot legitimately represent large areas of third sector activity; and that a wide consultation is now required in Scotland to agree a more effective framework. There are strong opinions that new arrangements should involve only policy and representation – that the market for training and support services is more appropriately the domain of member organisations.
    Across the third sector there are dozens of thematic and functional sub-divisions – but they would all identify with the culture of one or more of its three main branches – the social enterprise, the community or the voluntary sub-sectors.   
Perhaps some kind of federal representative structure would allow both sub sectoral diversity and the uniformity required to give common force to our different interests.

    The issue of representation is given immediacy by Scottish Govt’s new requirement that the third sector at local authority level organises to speak with a single voice.  It is Senscot’s position that any such ‘single interface’ would be meaningless unless it incorporates these three separate perspectives.

The Community Sector

DEFINITION: The community sector is the web of local groups, networks and traditions that exist amongst those who share defined neighbourhoods.  Its activities – predominately small scale – are led by and accountable to local people and are the main source of social capital in our communities.

HISTORY/ETHOS: The community sector has its roots in direct action by ordinary citizens to have greater control over their lives – challenging injustice – promoting new ways of doing things.  It uses the language of empowerment, activism and local democracy – often with an explicitly political edge.

REPRESENTATIVE BODY: The community sector needs to agree a national structure embedded in communities and led by local people.  This new body needs to proclaim its authority and independence from the state and academe.

GOING FORWARD: The community sector is probably the largest but least organised of the third sector’s three branches.  Scottish Govt. needs to co-ordinate a specific development strategy with budgets.

The Social Enterprise Sector

DEFINITION: Social enterprises are commercially run, profit making organisations – driven by social aims – whose profits are reinvested into their social mission.  Many organisations which operate as social enterprises don’t always refer to themselves as such.

HISTORY/ETHOS: The social enterprise movement has only emerged within the last 10 years – fuelled by the third sector’s need for sustainable, independent income and by the enthusiastic promotion of the state.  Its language and ethos are a mix of business and voluntary/community cultures.

REPRESENTATIVE BODY: There has been bold govt. investment in an effective support infrastructure – but some intermediaries tend to trip over each other (eg. Senscot and Coalition).  Some consolidation is needed for unified representation. 

GOING FORWARD: The state’s enthusiasm is partly about co-option into service delivery.  This raises issues about social enterprise becoming a construct of govt. and its long term independence.

The Voluntary Sector

DEFINITION: The voluntary sector is often used as a generic term synonymous with the social economy – third sector etc.  It is used here to mean the traditional charities which make up the bulk of the organised third sector.

HISTORY/ETHOS: The history of our voluntary sector mirrors the development of social policy across the whole spectrum of human need.  The ethos is moving away from the condescension of charity, towards co-production and more empowering ways of engaging with individuals who need help.

REPRESENTATIVE BODY: The voluntary sector includes some massive charities – battalions – with very different needs from the platoons.  Is it realistic for one organisation to represent the whole spectrum?  The new organisation, VAS, provides the opportunity for voluntary sector infrastructure to get alongside community and social enterprise representatives nationally and at local level.  Three branches in partnership.

GOING FORWARD: The emphasis on social enterprise has given rise to the myth that the third sectors main mission – the achievement of social justice – can be self financing.  It can’t.  Self financing services for the needy will always be the exception.