Category Archives: Comment

Voluntary Sector Archives: a democratic deficit?

Last week I attended a conference at the University of Northumbria which posed the question ‘Is there a democratic deficit in archives?’ It brought together a range of interested parties such as archivists, records managers, academics and civil servants. I went to see how the idea of democracy in archives could inform the work I do as a Research Assistant on the British Academy funded Research Project ‘Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain’. This project is specifically interested in promoting the preservation of the records of voluntary organisations and civil society groups.

My initial take on the question posed by conference was: Yes! There is a significant and multifaceted democratic deficit in archives. From my perspective working with voluntary sector archives I see several issues which contribute to this democratic deficit.

Firstly, there was the focus on public records – those covered in England and Wales by the Public Records Act 1958 and Freedom of Information Act 2000 and in Scotland by the Act of 2011. In England the archives of voluntary organisations are private – they is no requirement for them to be preserved beyond the regulators requirements e.g. by Charity Commission Annual Return. In Scotland, the Act covers those delivering government contracts and services, and so does cover some voluntary organisations. Yet, overall, in both cases, the archival record of the contribution to our democracy made by civil society organisations is skewed by omitting them from the public record in most cases. This is not only a historical omission, but one carrying on into the present day, where patchy records management practices hinder our ability to mine the records of organisations to show the value they have today.

Secondly, there were some recurring themes in the conference which resonated loudly with issues encountered on the British Academy Project and also with the historical and current concerns of voluntary organisations. For example, frequent reference was made to issues of trust and accountability. This was framed in several ways, by exploring questions such as:

  • How do archives create an authentic and authoritative record of the past?
  • How do we know if archives are authentic?
  • How can archives and records management processes improve trust and accountability?

Via examples such as the Hillsborough Independent Inquiry Panel’s Archive and alternative archives recording institutional abuse, we also considered what it means when the official record may not be trustworthy, or where it contains significant silences which amount to an injustice for victims, survivors and families. In the case of civil society and activist groups, their records really can be a way to hold the state to account – in this way, the creation of an archive can itself be considered a radical act. Yet it also begs the question of how we build trust and accountability within and across voluntary organisations. Some organisations provided the services and residential institutions which are now the concern of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). Recent reports have included allegations of abuse perpetrated in youth football clubs. From my own research as a historian of youth voluntary organisations I have every reason to suspect neglect and abuse spread beyond the confines of what has been or is currently newsworthy. What chance do we have of holding organisations accountable, learning from past mistakes, or building trust with organisations, if we have no record of their activities or decision making? These questions were on my mind as I heard from IICSA, Sarah Tyacke and Sinaed Ring. Without further support, resources, and perhaps even legislation I see little prospect of a transformation in voluntary sector archives and records management practice to build trust and accountability across the sector. This is vital, as recent research suggests that trust is indeed in decline.

Related to the above is the theme of crisis and tragedy. Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner spoke strongly of wanting to improve the standards of records management without England being compelled to do so by scandal, tragedy or crisis. She recalled her experiences in Canada dealing with records in exactly these circumstances. However, the advice elsewhere jarred with this view. Somewhat tellingly, advice from the experience working in Africa suggested that we ‘never waste a crisis’ and appealed to us to capitalise on situations as they arise to raise standards and awareness of the importance of good records management. This seemed built on a wry appraisal of the likelihood of gaining political will for this kind of work at such times.

I can see how this applies to the voluntary sector. Crisis, tragedy and scandal have all hit organisations in the past and they undermine trust. There is also a sense that the sector is on high alert for the next crisis, scandal or tragedy; this could be about abuse, social care provision or funding for example. I wholeheartedly agree that promoting and facilitating good archives and records management practice in voluntary organisations should be ongoing work and this is what the British Academy Project and our new Public Policy Work seek to do. However, we are a small (but ambitious) project which cannot realistically address all of these issues.

Given the lack of support and resources to help organisations with archives and records management, the lack of capacity in existing frameworks and the low political priority it is afforded, I fear that it may indeed take a scandal or crisis for the importance of this work to really come to the fore. This could have devastating consequences for the people involved and our wider faith in civil society organisations. This would be the biggest democratic deficit in archives – that a lack of attention to the archives of voluntary organisations could eventually be used to undermine civil society itself.

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How long does a PhD take?

This title could well read ‘How long does a PhD take!’ That would perhaps reflect the sense that though I have travelled a great distance towards completing my PhD in the last three years, it is not finished yet. I am entering my continuation year, or ‘writing-up’ period as it is also known. The terms of my funding mean that I will soon stop receiving the payments that have sustained me for the last three years. I am looking for work to fill the gap and know from colleagues who were never lucky enough to get funding that this will mean new pressures to deal with.

However, that is not what has me blogging today. I am blogging because it has become clear to me over the last year that expectations of how long it takes to complete a PhD thesis vary and sometimes contradict each other. This has meant confusion, pressure and doubt about myself which has not helped me get any nearer to submitting. In writing this post I want to start a conversation about how we set expectations with PhD students and how we develop systems and processes that deal with the variation between PhD students and theses. Continue reading

Linking young peoples’ benefits to training

The Labour Party are set to announce their plans for cuts to the welfare budget. It is being reported that among them is a plan to link benefits for young people to training. For young people between 18-21 who do have such training, the Job Seekers Allowance will be replaced by a payment that will require recipients to be in training at level three, equivalent to an A-Level. The JSA will remain for those with that training already, meaning the policy will affect seven out of ten 18-21 year olds currently on JSA. The money received by young people will be broadly the same, though means tested and tapered off dependent on parental incomes between £20,000 and £42,000.

The idea of linking benefits to training is interesting and the devil will be in the detail in this case. Helping young people get the skills they need to find work is a good idea, but making this a condition of receiving benefits has a touch of the workfare about it. In addition, it is not clear how such training will operate and what will happen if the jobs these young people are expected to go on to fail to materialise. What kinds of training will be considered? Will volunteering count? Volunteer work has the potential to help people learn new skills, but is often not considered within the realms of formal training. The presumed links between volunteering and employability are also not entirely supported by research. And again, Labour and those who might vote for them to introduce such a policy will have to decide if this is a step too far towards workfare, and if they think that is the right thing to do.

Looking at what detail has been announced, I am not sure how comfortable I feel with the idea of linking benefits to parental income, especially at the lower income ranges. Families with more children will suffer disproportionately if having more mouths to feed is not taken into account. This also presumes that parents will continue to support children after an age at which they are legally independent. I am sure many will, but it makes assumptions that all young people live in families where this is possible and therefore could leave vulnerable those that do not. What does it mean for how we view young people if parents are still partly financially responsible for children under 21 who are not working, but that state wants to divest itself of some of that responsibility?

The Guardian have asked a few young people what they think of the proposed changes. Two say that the young are being hit because they do not vote as much as older people – a post for another day perhaps. Another says it is unfair for young people to be hit with austerity measures when they had no part in causing austerity. One sees it as potentially a good move. But as is often the case with stories about young people in the media and policy about them, their voice is not particularly loud and frequently drowned out. I’d be interested to hear in the comments if any other young people have an opinion on the proposal.

Until such time as a fuller policy is revealed and indeed only if Labour are elected to implement it, wondering how this might work is little more than an interesting exercise. Looking at the coverage of It does reveal something of assumptions about young people and the families they live in though. It also reveals continuity with earlier youth policies and perceptions, where boundaries between adulthood and parental responsibility are somewhat malleable. Finally, it continues the long running debate about precisely where the parameters of state responsibility for citizens lie. It is perhaps these assumptions and blurred boundaries that make policy-making around young people fraught with difficulties, and definitely one of the reasons I am so interested in researching them. This, from Labour is not the last we will hear of young people’s welfare policies in the run up to the 2015 election, but it sets out to continue the debate along familiar lines. Whether anyone will seek to move debate forward, especially by bringing the voices of young people to the forefront, I will wait to see.

Charity Closures and Changing Fortunes

This post originally appeared on the VAHS blog in January 2013.

In all of the pre-Christmas frivolity you may be forgiven for having missed an article in the Observer late last year, detailing how one in six charities could face closure this year. In the cold light of a New Year when many households are tightening belts and we have already seen some high-profile casualties on our high streets, it is striking to think that we may lose such a large proportion of our charities. When so many voluntary organisations provide much-needed services in straightened times, this raises a question of how society will fill the void they may leave and what the voluntary sector will look like by the end of this Parliament.

Frank Prochaska

Frank Prochaska

While concern about the future of the sector is valid in the face of a stagnant economy and budget cuts, history shows that voluntary action adapts and rises to the challenges of circumstance. More recent literature on voluntary action history, for example from Matthew Hilton in his edited collection on The Ages of Voluntarism, tends to stress the diversity and adaptability of voluntarism. It seeks ‘to tackle specifically the decline narratives’ and ‘champion interpretations of continuity and change’. One of the ways recent historiography on voluntarism has done this is by shedding light on previously neglected areas and inviting us to consider voluntary action in a wider sense.

Edited by Matthew Hilton and James McKay (Oxford University Press/British Academy)

Edited by Matthew Hilton and James McKay (Oxford University Press/British Academy)

By seeing the history of voluntary organisations as one of ‘constant renewal and adaptation’ we can perhaps more optimistically anticipate what the sector may look like in the future. For people within the sector, the call by Colin Rochester and Meta Zimmeck, for voluntary organisations to ‘return to their roots’, might provide a starting point for this latest renewal.

Despite the bleak outlook, even from Colin and Meta in their recent review of 2012, there is hope that the sector will once again prove resilient and innovative. There has also always been a vibrant, though little understood, swarm of informal voluntarism which may yet soften the blow of fewer organised voluntary services. Whatever manifests itself in the short term, in the longer term the ‘big society’ and the new emerging welfare economy will appear to historians as parts of the same continuity and change which have always characterised voluntary action history. This, at least, should offer us some reassurance as most of us start the New Year, like many charities, with a bit less money in our pockets.

Matthew Hilton talks about his research into Non-Governmental Organisations.

Breaking new ground or digging up the past?

This post originally appeared on the VAHS Blog in March 2013

I’ve been watching the Channel 4 programme ‘Secret Millions’. The programme is a step on from the popular C4 format ‘Secret Millionaire’ where wealthy people give some of their money away to shocked recipients and the good causes they have been working with. The new show is about the distribution of Big Lottery Fund funding to voluntary organisations for ‘innovative and ground-breaking projects’. It uses a line-up of well-known C4 personalities looking to tackle some of Britain’s most pressing issues, working on pilot projects with voluntary organisations, with the prospect of the Lottery windfall hidden until the end.

The first episode featured C4 regular George Clarke tacking the issue of youth unemployment and empty homes. He worked with a local London youth club and the organisation London Youth getting young unemployed people involved in renovating a disused house with the help of retired mentors from the building trade. The programme followed the young people on trips, highlighted some of the social problems they face and showed them working on a house to get it renovated within two weeks. At the end the big announcement was made that they had been awarded funding by the Big Lottery Fund, £1.7 million over two years, aiming to help 1500 young people into work. I really enjoyed the show. It was an interesting way to look at the work of small voluntary organisations, raises several social issues and came with a big feel-good factor at the end.

However, the historian and critic in me was not quite sure how new, big and bold, the innovative idea being tested was. Surely this was just reality television gloss? Then today in the archives while researching London youth clubs I discovered the London Federation of Boys’ Clubs working with the Manpower Services Commission and the Job Creation Programme on a scheme where unemployed youth were trained up in the trades, in 1974. Admittedly these youngsters were renovating youth facilities and George Clarke has long campaigned about empty homes, but I was still struck by the similarities in the scheme: Both used youth clubs to target vulnerable youths, both looked at practical work experience, both projects took place during times of high youth unemployment where many young people lack opportunities to get into work and neither set of youngsters appear to have been paid for their work. Of course it is unlikely that C4 undertook extensive archival research prior to recording and I am sure all involved thought they were on to something new.

The innovation role of voluntary organisations has often been praised and it has been an important justification for their place in our contemporary welfare system. But how many other examples are out there of ‘innovations’ that have been forgotten and rediscovered? How new does an idea really have to be? And if it works, does it matter?

Will the Lobbying Bill become a defining moment in voluntary action history?

In a previous blog post for VAHS in January 2013 about predicted charity closures, I pointed out that historically the fortunes of the voluntary sector have ebbed and flowed. I argued that the flexibility and adaptability of the sector was one of its key strengths and that it would reconfigure on this occasion too. In that instance I was talking about financial constraints being put on the sector in the face of cuts and increasing demand, but a new challenge has since emerged.

This article from the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network Blog on the Lobbying Bill contradicts my previous optimism, and reading what detail is available, it paints a bleak picture on what might happen to many NGOs if the Bill goes through. While I stand by my comments on the flexibility and versatility of the voluntary sector, this legislation poses a big challenge to one of the core roles of some organisations. I think it is fair to say that my optimism is dampened, though not extinguished in the face of this new challenge. Hopefully the Bill will be amended to lift potentially severe restrictions on NGOs continuing to campaign for their causes. If not, perhaps a work-around will be found or new organisations will spring up to fill the gap.

Overall, the Bill is a blunt instrument. Initially it was championed as a way for clearing up opaque and complex lobbyists’ activities which have been mired in suspicion of being controlled by corporate interests. A prominent BBC Panorama programme was just one exposé which made it look like a Lobbying Bill was necessary. However, it looks as though instead the Bill may make it harder to hear the voices of organisations campaigning on behalf of vulnerable groups. There are wider implications for voluntary organisations though.

What could the Bill mean for voluntary organisations?

Firstly, I would point to the wealth of voluntary activity outside of the campaigning and lobbying role. Much of the work of voluntary organisations in still in service provision and at least in the short term this work seems set to increase. For a large proportion of organisations, especially at local level, their core role will remain though their ability to communicate about it may be constrained. Because much of this provision is at the local level, this means that small local organisations are less likely to be affected by the terms within the proposed legislation. We do not yet know how local branches of larger voluntary organisations will be treated i.e. whether their local spending on campaigning will count towards the parent organisation’s total.

Secondly, while it is yet to be confirmed precisely how the Bill will require  recording and reporting of lobbying activity, it will mean an increased administrative burden on voluntary organisations. This will cost time and money, increasing the basic running costs of NGOs to whom the Bill applies. This in itself is going to be a challenge for voluntary organisations. Yet higher running costs have the potential to alienate donors who wish as much of their donation as possible to end up helping a cause, and as little as possible to go on paid administration. It could also be the case that the overall effectiveness of organisations is compromised by the extra work required to comply with the proposed legislation.

Thirdly it is clear that the relationship between government and the sector will be changed by the Lobbying Bill. The tone of the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network Blog linked to above shows divisions within the sector but hostility towards the Government. While not every reaction has been phrased in quite the same way, discontentment is widespread.

It has been made clear that the state sees the sector as a servant and not a partner. While it is happy to award contracts to the sector on a competitive basis and work with organisations as it chooses, it expects voluntary organisations to know their place, and via this bill, quite frankly, to keep quiet. In the history of voluntary action this is not particularly new. I see it in my own research on youth clubs. But this approach undervalues voluntary effort and I would go as far as to say, potentially undermines democracy.

The Bill, if passed, will also mean bringing the Electoral Commission in on regulating the activities of not-for-profit organisations. The Charity Commission, in its regulatory role, has faced criticism in the past, and it was the first to cast a critical eye over the political activities of several charities in the 1960s. In response to criticism of charitable funds being used to finance political activity, some more prominent NGOs set up sister organisations not registered with the Charity Commission to carry out this work, Amnesty International being just one example. Under the new system, this would all now be included, possibly on the same balance sheet. Furthermore it is unclear how the Charity Commission and Electoral Commission will work together and what enforcement will look like.

Like many others working in this area I am concerned about what curtailing charities’ ability to campaign in this manner will do, not only to the charities, but to the people these charities exist to help. Therefore, despite my tempered optimism about the sector’s ability to bounce back, I remain concerned. I am concerned about the casualties of such an approach; not only those who benefit directly from the work of large charities and in whose interests NGOs campaign, but the whole of society, which will suffer if public debate can no longer hear the contributions of its voluntary organisations.

I sincerely hope the Bill will not pass without amendments which will allow charities to continue to have a significant voice in public debate. If it does become law, the 2015 General Election will be an important test run in seeing how charities cope with the new regulations. This leaves me wondering: will future historians of voluntary action look back on the Lobbying Bill as a turning point in the sector’s fortunes? Honestly, in some ways, I hope not.