By Professor Pete Alcock
When the last Labour government established the Office for the Third Sector (OTS) in 2006 and so, in some people’s minds, created the ‘third sector’, this began debates about the extent to which there was such a thing.
Critics of the notion pointed out that there never had been a unified sector as such; there was diversity of scale, mission, structure and much else – too much to be captured as one single whole. And the attempt to extend these blurry boundaries further by bringing in social enterprises was just too much like putting together ‘apples and pears’ – okay they are both fruit, but that is all! What is more, some asked, why should we be the third sector – surely we were the first?!
However, there was also unity in the midst of diversity. This was driven under Labour by the advantages which came for ‘the sector’ through engagement with government, and in particular the OTS. For instance, through member ship of the OTS Strategic Partners scheme, and in particular to access the resources which government was making available for strategic investment in the sector.
I have also argued elsewhere, with Jeremy Kendall, that the New Labour era was a very particular one in the history of relations between government and ‘the sector’ – perhaps even a ‘high-water mark’. We now have a new Coalition government with a different set of political and economic priorities. Things have changed, and we need to revisit our analysis of the sector and its relations with government.
The new government have made much of the commitment to promoting the Big Society, as a new departure in policy on the state and its relations with citizens and communities. Much has already been written about this, and there is scepticism about the extent to which this does mark a new departure or just a new discourse.
What the new government have also done, though, is change the name of the Office of the Third Sector to the Office for Civil Society (OCS). This is linked to the Prime Minister’s own views that the third sector is not an appropriate term to describe ‘voluntary and community organisations, charities and social enterprises’, as they are now sometimes listed. It suggests that we might be entering a new conceptual universe in which debate shifts from arguments about whether there is, or is not, a unified sector, to one in which we seek to replace the notion of a sector with the embracement of a mission – Civil Society.
When we enter into a debate about Civil Society, we engage with a very different theoretical tradition, and a very different notion of what might be the subject of our analysis. In this tradition it is not organisations and agencies in a sector (or not) that are the focus for debate, but rather the ways in which citizens and communities relate to each other. These relations may take place within voluntary and community based organisations, but they may not – and they may take place within public and market spheres too. Civil Society is not just a synonym for the third sector. Indeed it extends much beyond any organisational base to embrace how social relations are organised and conducted more generally.
This is a debate which we need to engage if we are to understand, and even challenge, the new policy environment which is unfolding in the country under the Coalition government. What is civility and what is society? Do how we deliver social care, or provide information and advice to citizens, constitute measures of civility in society? Does competition prioritise economic over social, or civl, values? These are the theoretical questions that we now need to address – and we will be exploring them in future TSRC work. Do join us…