The government has pushed the sector into a corner
It should not surprise anyone to find Serco building a partnership with a number of children’s and young people’s charities in order to deliver the expansion of the National Citizen Service. Even those larger charities involved, big as they are, could not deliver that level of ‘scaling up’ across so many regions without the support of Serco’s expansive infrastructure.
For Serco, of course, this kind of project is an obvious move: a secure government contract with a veneer of corporate social responsibility through partnering with the third sector.
Serco’s involvement in such a partnership raises a number of questions. We know from the recent Olympic security fiasco that G4S had still expected to receive its £50million ‘management fee’, despite its extraordinary organisational errors. So what financial guarantees are there for Serco in its joint bid with some of the most well-known children’s and young people’s charities? The charities involved will certainly take some funding to their “centres” to fund their core functions: can we assume it will be much less than Serco?
Of course there have always been partnerships between the voluntary and private sectors and they offer significant benefits to both parties. For charities, the endorsement and support of a significant brand can bring a huge boost to income. For the brands, although it’s never explicit, involvement with a major charity is always part of a strategy to increase profits. But these relationships are not about co-delivering a contract.
This collaboration with Serco is a different kind of partnership and it reflects the direction of travel for all sorts of public service delivery. Let’s not forget that when the government announced the National Citizen Service, it was to exemplify the Big Society agenda, the coming together of the voluntary sector to deliver better, more targeted interventions for young people. But Serco is not the third sector, it exists to make a profit. We are moving into territory that is shifting yet again.
More than that, the NCS was trumpeted as a more liberal-minded alternative to national military service, a way to sort out errant and aimless young people by giving them something structured to do. But the NCS was funded at the expense of existing youth service provision across the country and at much greater per capita cost, something some of the partners involved in this new shared endeavour raised when they appeared at the Education Select Committee in January 2011.
The common response to this argument is that those of us who make it must realise that this is “the real world” and we should live in it like everyone else. No doubt those organisations now working with Serco, who gave evidence at the select committee, would argue that this partnership is the only way to support the work they themselves argued already existed and was cheaper.
And this is the problem. The government shifts the goal posts so that funding sources for the existing, effective, evidenced work created over time by these organisations disappear, forcing them to participate in the government’s own ideological pet project.
Finding themselves only able to support their work through the government’s own favoured project, they are no longer able to criticise it but instead must argue that it is the best possible way to support young people throughout the country.
It is an exemplary political move on the part of the government but it is deeply harmful to the third sector. Not least because it inevitably leads to the doorstep of yet another gigantic, corporate monster, sucking its profit from our very own back pockets, while failing to support the future of the third sector as a movement.