Saturday, 10 January 2009

What is the role of the State?

Posted on the Bevan Foundation blog on 10th January 2009

We tackle the big uns on this blog.

Polly Toynbee piles into the debate in this morning's Guardian with an attack on the idea that charities should play a greater role in delivering public services. Charity is mostly a social good in itself, she says, but it is no substitute for the State:

The voluntary sector has only become more important by taking welfare state contracts to do things a democratically elected government chooses. The money is accountable - whereas random funds from philanthropists take a taxpayers' subsidy unaccountably.

Her piece is an attack on the increasingly fashionable view, especially in Conservative circles, that voluntary efforts are a more effective way to tackle complex social problems. As you'd expect from Polly Toynbee she's particular sensitive to any attempts to denude the capacity of the State to be marshaled for progressive causes. And she's right to sound the alarm, there is good reason to be cautious.

In Wales we have taken the threat to heart. The One Wales accord embraces Statism. It sets its face against PFI. The philosophy of 'progressive universalism' , which is cited as the ideological underpinning of Rhodri Morgan's Government, sets great store in accountability and co-operation in the delivery of public services. In practice this means seeing Local Government as the principal delivery agents. Taken with the challenge to the arms length principle under the bonfire of the Quangos, the attachment of WAG to the primacy of State bodies becomes clear. No mixed economy here.

That is not to say that charities and NGOs aren't funded to deliver public services in Wales, they are (to declare an interest, I run one them). But the relationship is often a hesitant one.

As Polly Toynbee acknowledges, charities can be "free-wheeling, often innovative, sometimes a beacon showing how to do things better, with ideas to lead the state sector".

Where public funds are concerned accountability is not unimportant, but we do not suffer a deficit in Wales. Some of the chief challenges we face over the coming period surround capacity and finance. We'll be expected to do more with less; to be more innovative and less bureaucratic. Here the Third Sector could help, but an overly defensive approach with a Tory bogeyman in mind could get in the way.

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