Event Details

London School of Economics & Political Science, London, UK
31st July 2014

Event Description

This meeting of English third sector experts from the worlds of academia, practice and the media was convened as part of the process of involving national stakeholders with relevant knowledge in the implementation of the TSI research project. The 3 purposes of the meeting were: to equip participants with the information needed to raise awareness of TSI as a cross-EU research effort; to gather their insights on which “domains” should be explored, and how this should be done, in assessing the third sector’s impact; and to facilitate a discussion of how the third sector’s impact is shaped by the current national public policy situation.

Discussion strand 1: Third Sector Impact Domains
TSI had been initiated under the assumption that the third sector’s impacts could usefully be understood as relating to 5 domains: (1) Quality of Life & Wellbeing; (2) Innovation; (3) Civic engagement, advocacy & community development; (4) Economic impact; and (5) human resources. These occur at the individual level (individual people); the organisational level (third sector agencies); and at the societal/community level. The group of national stakeholders agreed that an aspiration for long term research should be to move towards a deeper and more holistic understanding of actual impact by:

  • Broadening the in-scope domains to include a sixth domain, environmental impacts, capturing biodiversity effects and the intrinsic value of actions and commitments with ecological consequences (in addition to anthropocentric impacts).
  • Moving towards the adoption of indicators and metrics of impact (or proxies for impact) which were nuanced enough to capture the longer term, intangible and relational aspects of third sector action.
  • Emphasising that negative impacts could be bound up with positive effects, as ‘the other side of the coin’. The case of highly committed staff making enduring contributions to the welfare of others at low or no financial cost was an example.
  • Seeking to explore whether some domains were more significant than others, especially in the context of the goal of understanding how the third sector may be distinctive. How does it add value compared to a situation in which only the state and the market were contributing?

Discussion strand 2: How the British policy environment shapes third sector impacts
National policy is everywhere restricted by the climate of fiscal austerity, in the aftermath of the economic crisis. Under the Conservative-led Coalition Government, driven by ideological hostility to the State, this has generated wide ranging and deep cuts in central government funding and other support for the third sector. While most third sector organisations do not rely directly on central government funding, this is a serious problem for many of those that do. Especially in contexts where other forms of support are not available or cannot be developed because of market and voluntary resource inadequacies, limitations or failures, the third sector appears to be operating well below its impact potential and sometimes leaving basic social needs unmet. Against the backdrop of the increasing social and economic inequality which has become so apparent in recent years, this is especially troubling. The problem is aggravated by the State’s own current orientation in at least 2 senses:

  1. There are major gaps between policy rhetoric and practice. While the former posits the existence of extensive opportunities for the third sector, as part of a “ Big Society”, fuelled by the adoption of social investment models and the empowerment of local policy actors, in reality there has only been piecemeal and halting progress in designing and rolling out substantive policies.
  2. In delivering and managing programmes which are meant to involve opportunities for third sector participation, the State’s own commissioning and implementation practices have often been underdeveloped, poorly co-ordinated and insufficiently focussed on impacts, or defensible proxies for impacts. These weaknesses may be aggravated by EU-mandated procurement rules and requirements (see below). This appears to be having the knock-on effect of undermining the third sector’s own capacity to secure desirable impacts in front line delivery.

Local policies are the most relevant for most third sector organisations, and creative local initiatives have sometimes created space for the third sector to flourish. However, local government and statutory agencies are relatively financially and politically dependent on central government compared to most other European countries. With the national austerity approach outlined curtailing support, it has been difficult or impossible for local policy agencies to make the sustained, long term resource commitments conducive to the achievement of impact potential.

EU policies have to date had only a relatively modest direct role to play in visibly shaping third sector impacts. The EU’s regional policies and the European Social Fund have had a part to play in some areas of economic development and employment oriented measures, and changes in how these policies are implemented in the UK have had mixed results. However, the EU’s indirect role is setting rules which constrain national procurement and commissioning policies and practices, and in determining what may be factored in as legitimate “social value” considerations, is of much more general importance.

The meeting programme, participants list and power point presentations are available for download.