I was talking to someone recently about the prevalence of what they called “No sh*t, Sherlock” reports — costly reports that reach blindingly self-evident conclusions. Two new reports on ‘infrastructure support’ for the third sector seem to fall squarely into this category.
Third Sector Online has just carried a story about a new National Audit Office report, Building the Capacity of the Third Sector, and a Capacitybuilders report, Sustainable Models of Support. The NAO report, which evaluates the effectiveness of the Capacitybuilders/ChangeUP programme, concludes that insufficient thought was given to how infrastructure bodies in receipt of Capacitybuilders’ “investment” — such as Councils for Voluntary Service — would become genuinely self-sustaining in the longer term. Capacitybuilders’ own survey — based on detailed examination of nine infrastructure organisations also seems to conclude that this may be an unrealistic goal.
Capacitybuilders found that none of the providers surveyed “could describe the future of their organisations or the services they provided as 100 per cent secured beyond a horizon of two or three years”. Well, no sh*t, Sherlock. How could any other conclusion realistically make sense? That is the current reality of life in the third sector — and has been for years.
When it comes to providing real, practical, hands-on support and development — services, incidentally, which are typically free at the point of delivery — it is difficult to see how anyone with the slightest experience of the third sector could assume that this would ever offer a viable income-generating business model. One might argue that it isn’t meant to. The point of such services is to assist some of the poorest community-based organisations.
Of course, one might say that none of this would be the case if voluntary and community organisations paid for the support and development they need. And, whether openly spoken or not, it is clear that an ability to pay has been the underpinning principle guiding much of the government’s thinking about not just infrastructure support but also specialist business support such as that provided for social enterprise.
But the simple reality is that most don’t and most can’t. Those that can afford to pay have probably already voted with their feet and source the services they require from the provider/s of choice. That’s fine for those that can afford it. But for those that can’t — for the smaller or less professionalised or more volunteer-dependent organisations, those that report after report says are the ‘lifeblood of civic society’, the ‘glue that helps hold neighbourhoods together’, and all the other platitudes that the all the main political parties have been trotting out for a while now — one struggles to see how they can be helped to fulfil that role as effectively as possible unless someone is prepared to spend money on their support.
The most annoying thing about this situation is less the outright idiocy of policy-makers and more their hypocrisy — on the one hand, droning on about civil society and the need for active citizenship and voluntary involvement; on the other, the clear belief that ultimately only a market relationship matters, a sustainable business model….
Why is it that those who know least about markets always think that market solutions are the answer to everything?