Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

The third sector – Fiona Duncan

This post by Fiona Duncan is a summary of a chapter from a forthcoming publication, ‘Reforming Scotland’, produced by Reform Scotland.

The Christie Commission report, in 2011, put the need for “urgent and sustained reform” of public services succinctly, calling for “a fundamental overhaul of the relationships within and between those institutions and agencies – public, third sector and private’ responsible for design and delivery.

It was absolutely right that the third sector be challenged. Many of Scotland’s 23,500 charities deliver a quasi-statutory role, with almost 50% reporting that their income comes from the state.

But does this symbiotic relationship present a real challenge to reform?   Although Scotland’s third sector has a history of responsiveness, does its reliance on the state for financial survival when there is less money to go round, risk compromising its willingness and ability to propose and provide alternatives or solutions?

Recession and austerity are taking their toll and arguably playing a crucial role in the growth of inequality: diseases we thought long gone, that signal poverty and malnutrition, have returned; the gap between rich and poor widens; and we’re failing to close the educational attainment gap.  When times are tough, people tend to hunker down and see challenge instead of opportunity – risking that the approach to impending cuts results in myopia with institutions losing sight of the bigger picture.

So, despite universal acceptance of Christie, what has changed in the past four years?

It is incredibly difficult to implement change, and arguably the third sector has limited power in rethinking the design and delivery of public services.

Moreover, raising money from private sources is getting more difficult, not least because funders are becoming more demanding and discerning – businesses and philanthropists, in particular, want a relationship beyond just cash.

In short, everyone wants more bang for their buck.

Yet there is a dichotomy in this too.  Research suggests stereotypes about charities exist – they are amateur yet should not be spending money on staff and running costs rather than the end cause. That disconnect is potentially dangerous, when funders actively demand greater professionalism and accountability.

This risks mission confusion with charities considering the need to strengthen themselves as the way to achieve their causes.  Christie-esque reform might diminish (elements of) the third sector, but it could be a way of contributing to a higher purpose of stronger communities. For example, do charities do enough to share services, premises, skills, knowledge and learning?  Should more charities be thinking of merging?

There are examples of the nettle being grasped: the recent merger of two breast cancer charities created the largest dedicated breast cancer research programme in the UK and potential savings in overheads means more funding for cause rather than existence.  But such initiatives are the exception rather than the rule, just as they are in the public sector.

We are still far from service redesign putting the needs of the individuals first.

We need to acknowledge society’s strengths and explore how to make them stronger still – and move away from deficit-based models.

Fortunately, there has been considerable focus on this in recent years.  The Carnegie Trust UK’s Route Map to an Enabling State suggests that the state needs to share, give power away, step back from delivery and involve others more – and that resources should be targeted where they are most needed, so that those who have greatest need, get more.  A radical shift in the nature of relationships between state, individual, communities – and charities.

Accepting that change is desirable, how can we reach agreement on what this might look like in a new societal order?

World-renowned economist, Enrico Giovannini, suggested that Scotland needs to focus more on increasing equitable and sustainable well-being and to listen to what people say are their priorities.

So, if here in Scotland, we want to achieve improved well-being for those who currently have the least, we need to engage directly with them, collaborate and be prepared to hand over control, power and responsibility, if that is what they deem to be necessary to change circumstances.  Enabling is key to strengthening our society.

Finding populations willing to engage may be another challenge – but who’d have thought that nearly 86% would vote in the 2014 independence referendum?  . People want to be part of making something happen, of belonging to something bigger than themselves.  This must present a foundation to build on.

And what of the role for the third sector in enabling not just the state, but also communities?  But charities and groups are still institutions… so how does that differ from current public service design and delivery?

Carnegie UK Trust tells us that applying change top down is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. So let’s start with communities and individuals as the essential blocks to build quite different relationships. Give citizens power and control over what happens – nothing imposed, everything debated and agreed.  Shift from being providers to enablers.

Even more radically, what might result if we start with those communities and individuals who have the least?

Scotland has an opportunity to change the discourse forever, to allow people to continue to congregate in communities of place and of interest, to find shared needs and wants and crucially, to make those happen with the right support. An opportunity to go back to the beginnings of the voluntary sector, to strengthen society by investing in local communities with people forging their own groups and commonalities.

Scotland’s third sector can reach the grassroots where people whose voice needs to be heard, are. And enable a flow of resources, power and control back to those very communities from whence they all came.

It’s risky but we would no doubt learn as much from our failures as our successes.  And it could just be the catalyst we need to finally act on the Christie Commission recommendations and change the relationships between the sectors and individuals and communities.

By becoming enablers, Scotland’ third sector could play a key role in helping find solutions to intractable issues of poverty, unfairness and inequality.  That’s a prize worth trying for.


Fiona Duncan is the chief executive of LLoyds TSB Foundation for Scotland.