Extension ladders or parallel bars? The future of the community welfare sector

There is a lot at stake in how the community sector positions itself in response to its changing environment. Many, including Tony Nicholson from the Brotherhood of St Laurence, are concerned that the sector will lose its connection to community because of its increasing professionalisation and contracting to government. This was expressed in a recent speech he made about the future of the welfare sector. However, as Helen Dickenson (@drhdickinson)Assoc. Prof with the Melbourne School of Government notes, this is not a new problem. The sector has grappled with its relationship to the state for some time. In order for the sector to not become ‘policy victims’, they must stop finger pointing to negotiate their role.

Tony Nicholson recently gave an impassioned speech on the future of the community welfare sector and in doing so articulated a number of the sorts of concerns that have been expressed in parts of this sector for some time.  Nicholson argues that we are on the precipice of significant change in the community welfare sector and that ‘in the next year or two decisions will be made about its future that in all likelihood will be irrevocable…if wrong decisions are taken, they will inevitably lead to the erosion of what our voluntary organisations have stood for over a century’.

Leaving aside the issue of whether we are able to clearly identify what the wrong and right decisions might be in this space, the proposition that we could be about to witness the demise of the sector is alarming.  No doubt these comments will have chimed with many, coming at a time when fears over cuts to welfare services have intensified with the Federal budget.  More locally, the recommissioning exercise which the Department of Health conducted in reforming community support services for people with a mental illness has also left some in the sector nervous about what the future holds.

One of Nicholson’s major criticisms is that community services have become professionalised as a result of the involvement of government and this has led to a loss of volunteering and community links to welfare services. He goes on to argue that this model is not sustainable and that the sector needs to ‘pull back…and re-imagine its contribution to harnessing community altruism in building community strength and well-being in the decades ahead’.    Nicholson states he is not arguing for the abandonment of the professionalised community welfare sector, although it is difficult to see what he is actually arguing for beyond a return a form of associational life that existed some time ago.  Mention is made of the possibilities of community budgets and of the need to reorient the sector and re-imagine the community relationship but there is little in the way of specific actions suggested.

In his speech Nicholson reserves particular criticism for recent Victorian efforts at sector reform and the process that ended in Peter Shergold’s‘map for reform’.  Nicholson is scathing of Shegold’s findings, arguing that the recommendations ‘were so motherhood and high level in nature as to be practically meaningless’.  It is true that many of these recommendations are incredibly broad and will be challenging for public organisations to deliver, although it would be a challenge for anyone to reform such a broad and disparate set of services and relationships in a just a few clear and uncontested recommendations.  Yet, having been so critical of Shergold for being high levelit is difficult to be clear what Nicholson wants beyond instigating ‘difficult conversations about the future’.  For all his opposition to the Shergold report, many of the points raised look remarkably similar – albeit from a different point of reference.

It is true that the sector is currently going through a period of great unsettlement, where changes to the operating environment mean that organisations need to rethink their roles, structures and practices.  Although some of these recent events will have added a new dimension to the debate, the community sector has long suffered from something of an identity crisis.  It has often been described as a ‘loose and baggy monster’ given that it comprises a range of different individuals, actors, interests, values and world views that make it difficult for the sector to hold one consistent and comprehensive perspective on any range of issues.

Crisis over the role and status of the community sector is not confined to Australia and many other community sectors around the world have struggled with issues of strategic leadership in determining what the sector should do and how it should relate to government.  Further, this debate isn’t new by any means.  In a UK context, as long ago as 1912 Sidney and Beatrice Webb struggled with whether voluntary sector provision should operate as an alternative to the state seeking to compete with public services, or whether it should aim to provide complementary or additional provision ‘beyond’ the state.  The question they posed was should the sector operate as ‘extension ladders’ or ‘parallel bars’?  Clearly a lot has changed since these times, although the crux of the debate concerns what the role should be for the community sector which seems to be precisely the issue that Nicholson is highlighting.

No doubt this is a difficult time for many in the community welfare sector and other countries have seen organisations hit hard as austerity measures have cut the amount of funding available. Significant change is on the horizon for government and this goes beyond simply relationships with the community welfare sector.  Not all community organisations will react the same way to these changes and nor should they.  This is a diverse sector and we should celebrate this even if it does make it difficult to steer at times.

In order to contribute to a discussion about the future of the community welfare sector we need to be clear about the specific strengths and skills of the sector.  Similar conversations have been had in a UK context where the Third Sector Research Centre has argued that it is crucial that community organisations be clear about their distinctive contribution and then proactively manage their interdependence with other agencies and actors.  It is difficult to be an autonomous agent without this sort of proactive management.  Of course the changing environment will impact on the development of community organisations but they can and should challenge policies where these are not appropriate and advocate on behalf of their communities.  Community organisations should not be ‘policy victims’.  In order to achieve this there needs to be constructive dialogue from both sides and not just finger pointing.