The decline and fall of independent voluntary action and advocacy? Reflections and perspectives from NCIA’s Inquiry into Voluntary Services
Aiken, Mike (2015)

Voluntary organisations engaged in welfare services have been explicitly told to ‘do more and say less’ by government (Pudelek, 2014). This narrative challenges advocacy and independent action – traditional voluntary action roles in Anglo-Saxon liberal democracies (Mill, 1862; Tocqueville, 1835/1990). The threat to ‘voice’ for disadvantaged people who have no option to ‘exit’ (Hirschman, 1992) presents a critical issue for voluntary organisations. The ‘rediscovery of poverty’ from the mid-1960s propelled voluntary sector advocacy roles. These always involved dilemmas (Cairns et al 2010) but threats appeared to accelerate from 2010 (Benson, 2015). The banking failures of 2008 appeared to be converted into a narrative of welfare state failure in an ‘alchemy of austerity’ (Clarke & Newman (2012). There were sharp reductions in funding to local authorities (IFS, 2014) and voluntary organisations (NCVO, 2015) with damage inflicted on poor people (O’Hara, 2015).

Meanwhile, contracting processes are an increasingly dominant funding mechanism (NCVO, 2015) tending to create complex shadow bureaucracies in a hollowed out state (Frederickson, 2006). Knight (1993) had argued that contracting regimes were moving voluntary organisations towards being quasi-state agents unless they stayed small and vision-centred. These themes, which prompted the creation of the National Coalition of Independent Action (NCIA) in 2004/5, remain contemporary (Milbourne, 2013; Rochester, 2013) and have latterly been acknowledged elsewhere (Barings, 2015). Voluntary organisations have reported contracts accompanied by legal ‘gagging clauses’ that prevented them drawing on service delivery evidence to advocate on welfare issues (BBC, 2014).

This paper focuses on NICA’s Inquiry into Voluntary Services (2013-15), which involved academics, practitioners and campaigners in reviewing literature, interviewing those in the field and collectively analysing findings (NCIA, 2013). The approach drew on ‘positionality’ (Herr and Anderson, 2005), where the researcher is acknowledged as an active knowledgeable agent in knowledge creation (Denzin & Lincoln, 2011). The findings suggest the environment for service-providing voluntary organisations is becoming difficult, hostile and getting worse: for the people for whom they provide services and undertake activities; for the scope and quality of the services they provide; and for their own independence and self-determination (NCIA, 2015). The inquiry encountered many voices that felt unheard amid dominant narratives that emphasised ‘efficiency’, ‘performance’ and ‘business-like approaches’ while downplaying ‘deliberation’, ‘advocacy’ and the political dimension. In this respect Lukes (2005:26) analysis concerning the ‘power to control the agenda of politics and exclude potential issues…’ remains highly pertinent.


Dr Mike Aiken is a freelance researcher, lecturer and writer specialising in the third sector and civil society organisations. Mike worked in the third sector for nearly 20 years at Community Matters, SCADU, Save the Children and the Development Trusts Association and he remains involved in advocacy, community action and activism in Brighton. Over the last 15 years he has been engaged in research with the Open University, the Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR) and the National Coalition of Independent Action. Mike holds a PhD (Open University), MA in social policy (University of Sussex) and a BA Hons in philosophy (University of Wales). He has published articles on third sector issues in Voluntas, Voluntary Sector Review and Public Management Review; book chapters on social enterprise and governance; and essays on civil society in Voices of Mexico, Interface and Red Pepper. He co-edits the practice papers for the Voluntary Sector Review