Tag Archives: Voluntary Sector

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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Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain

In an earlier blog post I talked about my visits to wild archives and some of the problems inherent in using these kinds of sources. At the time I was aware of the Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives and the work Georgina Brewis had been doing, for example her blog for NCVO Eight reasons charities should be interested in their archives.

A surprisingly well-ordered wild archive

A surprisingly well-ordered wild archive, but what should the organisation do with it in the long term?

Georgina has since put in, and won a bid for funding for a British Academy Research Project on Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain which aims to look at best practice and practical guidance for voluntary organisations on digitising and preserving their archives. I am delighted to have been appointed as a part-time Research Assistant on this project.

Unsurprisingly, I wholeheartedly agree about the value we should be placing on voluntary sector archives. Not only are they invaluable to researchers but they can also be a huge asset for the voluntary organisations themselves; they are an evidence base, they contain crucial insights into an organisation’s history and identity and they contribute to a wider understanding of the place of that organisation in our society. Even outside of academia, understanding the full history of welfare and society is important at a time of significant change in our welfare state. Without recourse to the archives, histories and identities of voluntary groups, their role and importance may be lost in wider and public understandings of what welfare is, as well as what it has been.

I have several exciting challenges in this Research Assistant role; organising the launch event at the British Academy on the 5th June 2015, learning about digitisation and records management, drafting guidance for voluntary sector organisations, and piloting and refining this guidance with voluntary sector partners.

There will be updates on the project via the NCVO blog, voluntarysectorarchives.org.uk, the University College London Institute of Education and a range of partner organisations. I will also be posting some updates here about my role and perspective. In the meantime, I have plenty to be getting on with!

Child Poverty Action Group Witness Seminar

On 6th January 2015 I attended a Witness Seminar at the Institute for Contemporary British History on the history of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in the 70s and 80s, as part of their forthcoming 50th Birthday celebrations. Not only was I interested to hear about how such a high-profile organisation had handled the huge political and policy changes of those particular two decades, I was also interested to see this group form of oral history in action for the first time. Continue reading

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.