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  • Author or Editor: Rob Macmillan x
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The coronavirus pandemic has rapidly become a multifaceted global crisis, disrupting economies, livelihoods and ways of life, with significant ramifications for the third sector. This paper seeks to prompt a conversation about third sector research agendas, which might be animated in and beyond coronavirus, focusing primarily on the experience of the sector in the UK but including references globally. After a brief discussion of the acute three-dimensional crisis facing the sector, the paper raises questions for now and later at three interconnected levels: of practice, organisation and society. The paper concludes with a call for critically engaged curiosity about the role and fortunes of the third sector in a time of lockdown and its aftermath.

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While the idea of ‘support’ for the third sector is a continuous thread across political contexts, its nature and extent is likely to change. Based on a critical interpretation of the United Kingdom (UK) coalition government's consultation paper Supporting a stronger civil society (Office for Civil Society, 2010), this paper suggests that ‘support’ should be viewed with some ambivalence. Rather than a neutral set of mechanisms for improving the operation and effectiveness of third sector organisations, ‘support’ may disguise hidden assumptions about how the third sector ought to be different.

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Claims for the distinctiveness of third sector organisations are a relatively widespread and familiar feature of third sector commentary and analysis. This paper reviews relevant theoretical and empirical research to examine the idea of distinctiveness, arguing that such claims remain inconclusive. Informed by a view of the third sector as a contested ‘field’, and drawing on Bourdieu's notion of ‘distinction’, the paper suggests that research attention should focus additionally on the strategic purpose of claims for distinctiveness, rather than simply continue what might be a ‘holy grail’ search for its existence. The paper uses this argument to complicate and extend the idea of the third sector as a ‘strategic unity’, and concludes by suggesting some further lines of enquiry for third sector research.

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Despite a largely indifferent and otherwise sceptical public reception, the ‘Big Society’ has remained a central feature of the Conservative-led coalition's project in the United Kingdom. This article asks what the Big Society might mean for the ‘third sector’ of voluntary organisations, community groups and social enterprises. The previous Labour government's approach has been characterised as the development of a closer ‘partnership’ between state and the third sector. However, a partial decoupling may now be under way in the new political and economic context. Theoretically, this might signal a shift away from the idea of interdependence between the state and the third sector, and towards a model involving separate spheres: from partnership to an emergent ‘trial separation’. The article draws on Friedrich Hayek's theory of ‘spontaneous order’, suggesting that the Big Society involves some implicit Hayekian assumptions. It concludes by considering the implications of regarding the third sector in such terms.

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An earlier article in Voluntary Sector Review examined the UK coalition government's agenda for supporting a stronger civil society (Macmillan, 2011). This article takes the story forward in the unfolding field of third sector infrastructure by considering key developments in the policy context in the intervening years. The specific focus here is market-making in support services, through a discussion of the Big Lottery Fund's ‘building capabilities’ framework and the promotion of ‘demand-led’ capacity building.

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Successive UK governments have sought to promote the role of the voluntary sector in criminal justice, a field traditionally dominated by public sector provision. A new wave of reform launched by the Conservative-led Coalition government sought to outsource probation services and introduce a ‘payment by results’ model to reward success in reducing reoffending rates. A new market for rehabilitation services has thus been under construction, based on ‘prime’ contractors and supply chains of sub-contracted providers. How would voluntary sector organisations fare in such a market? This chapter provides a review of these developments, offering an in-depth examination of the voluntary sector’s position in an unsettled criminal justice field at a crucial early stage of market shaping. The chapter assesses the attempts by voluntary sector advocates, and voluntary sector organisations themselves, to establish and maintain a viable footing in the emerging landscape of criminal justice.

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An extensive support infrastructure lies behind much service delivery in the third sector, provided through a complex and diverse range of umbrella bodies fulfilling different functions and representing different alliances of third sector organisations at national, regional and local levels. This chapter examines this contested field to ask what role is played by these bodies, and how this changes over time in response to wider contextual and policy developments in the move away from a well-resourced and accommodating environment for the third sector. The chapter charts the debates surrounding these changes, and concludes with an assessment of how key assumptions about the role of capacity building are changing, both in terms of how it is organised, and what it is for. It is suggested that this amounts to the emergence of a more explicitly ‘positional’ approach to capacity building in an increasingly competitive environment for third sector organisations.

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This article offers a critical commentary on the development of commissioning and procurement in criminal justice. We argue that if public services are to effectively meet the wide range of complex needs among offenders, then commissioners need to embrace a ‘market stewardship’ approach. This should take a whole-system view of the development of a diverse market, attending both to the diversity of providers (supply) and to the diversity of voices articulating needs and influencing service design (demand).

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By identifying the support needs of voluntary and community organisations, diagnosis is commonly understood as an initial stage of effective and targeted capacity building. This paper offers a broader reflection, suggesting that diagnosis can play two other functions: as a selection mechanism for access to capacity-building resources, but also as a market-making device in bringing together potential providers and would-be customers to discuss an intangible and difficult to describe process of organisational support.

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Conventionally we think of the welfare state in terms of the state: what it provides by way of welfare services, what it costs to provide them, and what they achieve. However, as the chapters in this book amply demonstrate, this is at best a narrow conception of welfare and of the services, policies and practices operating to promote it. This chapter looks beyond the state at the vast array of non-profit making organisations and services in the voluntary and community sector. It does not remove the state from the picture, however. The state is heavily involved and implicated in the way the voluntary and community sector has developed, the roles it plays and the way it operates. The relationship between the state and the voluntary and community sector remains an ongoing tension, where increasing concern over threats to the independence of the sector have been voiced in recent years.

After some introductory discussion of context and definition, the chapter looks in turn at data on the voluntary and community sector’s scale, scope and activities; gives an overview of its historical development in welfare services from the late Victorian era; then looks more closely at the sector’s experience from the New Labour governments through to Brexit. The chapter concludes by considering the main challenges facing the sector and, finally, its future prospects.

In the discussion we refer to the voluntary and community sector, but this presents readers unfamiliar with the field with two immediate problems: first, what do we mean by ‘voluntary and community’, and, second, what is implied by the idea of ‘sector’? The first problem is compounded by the existence of multiple alternative labels which are intended to cover more or less the same territory.

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