The White Paper Supporting Voluntary Activity, 2000 provided the first formal policy level definition of the relationship between the state and the community and voluntary sector. It also supported the right of community and voluntary organisations to:
- Be independent
- Have freedom of action
- Promote social inclusion
The paper also specified the need for ‘the state and the sector to each recognise their mutual right to constructively critique one another’s actions and policies and acknowledged ‘the role of the (community and voluntary) sector in inputting to policy making. This paper was however never fully implemented, which was a huge disappointment and thought by some to have damaged the relationship.
Various pieces of research we commissioned found an uneasy relationship between the community and voluntary sector and the state. In some cases this relationship could be linked back to historical events. The disparate and diverse nature of the community and voluntary sector and limited nature of collaboration between organisations claiming to represent similar interests/groups caused confusion amongst some policy-makers. For the community and voluntary sector there was challenge in retaining independence while relying on reducing levels of state funding.
The uneasy nature of the relationship was also clearly linked to the existence of different expectations of the role of the community and voluntary sector. Some policy-makers considered ‘flexible on the ground’ local service provision to be the most important purpose of the sector, while others were of the view that advocacy work was core to what the sector did. For some the advocacy role of the sector was linked to their role as a source of information and evidence, with questions raised about groups who did not engage in this type of activity. Questions were also asked about the representativeness of the sector in comparison with the democratic mandate of the politicians, who in some cases saw themselves as the ‘true advocates’.
Policy-makers and influencers generally understood and in most cases accepted and acknowledged the role of advocacy by the sector, however there was a range of views on implementation of this role. Some were very positive (promoting and encouraging advocacy), while others had negative perceptions about its practice (regarded by some as self-interested and unconnected to the experience), with no-advocacy clauses (e.g. Service Level Agreements) introduced by some government agencies and organisations. There was also a view that some community and voluntary organisations engaged in social justice advocacy were not sufficiently familiar with policy making processes or the constraints facing policy-makers.