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Should charities run public services?

By James Noble 27 March 2014

With charities in the running to deliver new probation contracts, it’s worth reviewing what the public thinks about the idea of charities working in this space.

The issue had greater visibility a few years ago when the Big Society still gripped Government agenda. At that time, Stephen Bubb of Aveco warned of the danger of a breakdown in political consensus over the role of charities and of the welfare state. He feared the debate about Big Society could divide attitudes across party political lines, with Conservatives pushing for increased voluntary and charity action, and Labour becoming more consciously pro-state.

So have Stephen’s fears come true? Unfortunately, polling on this subject has withered away along with the Big Society itself. Hence, our recent Mind the gap survey is possibly the first to look at public attitudes towards charities since research by Ipsos MORI/Charity Commission in 2012.

We asked over 1,000 adults whether delivering public services is: something they feel charities are doing wrong; a role that charities should perform; something they think charities currently spend most of their time doing.

The first thing to say is that across the three questions only about four in ten respondents gave any kind of opinion, so for most of the population, whether or not charities are delivering public services is not top of mind.

We did find a party political divide on whether ‘delivering public services that should be delivered by the state’ is something charities are currently doing wrong: It was the second biggest concern among Labour supporters (mentioned by one in three) but only the seventh biggest concern for Conservatives voters (mentioned by 11%).

However, flip it around and look at whether people think charities should ‘run a service currently run by the state’ and there’s consensus: only 13% of either party’s supporters agree.

So support for the idea of charities delivering public services is both low and evenly spread across the parties, while resistance is higher but predominantly a Labour issue. I’m not sure we can take this as a sign of a breakdown in consensus; perhaps the greater concern should be that a minority of the population are getting what they want while the rest are indifferent, if not opposed.

But maybe we shouldn’t talk in generalities. At the launch of Mind the gap, one thing our audience agreed on was that the word “charity” holds different meanings for different people—hence findings like one in three think charity chief executives should be paid as least as much as MPs (£66,000) while 16% think they shouldn’t be paid at all.

“Public services” is equally broad, and in reality people seem happier if charities run some services more than others. For example, the 2012 Charity Commission research found that only 3% thought charities would be best at running schools or hospitals, compared to 20% who thought they would be best to deliver advice services (although note that’s still only one in five in favour).

Sadly, the Charity Commission didn’t ask who should run probation services—in fact, there’s been no published polling on this question at all. So a major reform to outsource 70% of rehabilitation services to the private and voluntary sectors is taking place without any reliable sense of what the public thinks about it.

All we can do is guess. And on the basis of these polls I’d expect there to be a small minority in support, some strong opposition and a fair degree of indifference.

Perhaps the Ministry of Justice has recognised this; the reforms have had a high profile in the London Evening Standard this week, suggesting the start of a communications push. This is welcome: if both main parties remain intent on increasing the role of charities in public service delivery then getting the public on-board is surely necessary.