What does it really mean to “do good”?
Too often, it’s about the amelioration of harm and “doing to” rather than “doing with.” Charity is most people’s shorthand for this, commonly meaning helping people less fortunate than ourselves, stepping in when they have a problem that they can’t solve on their own, supporting the work of charities. The welfare state is another, seen as a safety net when individual resources are not enough.
But I think we need a shift up in gear, in which “doing good” is seen primarily as building resourceful and resilient individuals and communities before problems occur, with people and institutions across different sectors working together to achieve this.
The state ‘s idea of itself needs to change if this is to happen. It currently characterizes itself mostly as a deliver of public services, focusing on managerial efficiency as its key role, rather than on social mobilization and collaboration. Good health and education, for example, involve many hands – individuals, families, communities, businesses, voluntary organisations – with public services being only on one of them. But politicians focus on service reform.
Becoming “an enabling state” (a concept invented by the Carnegie UK Trust) would require a much more collaborative approach. We’ve heard the rhetoric before in the Big Society and in the previous Labour government’s Third Way and “civic renewal” – and it’s true they did not work. But, as Civil Exchange’s Big Society Audits documented, these initiatives failed partly because successive governments adopted a centralized, command and control approach, and often sidestepped or even undermined longstanding social infrastructure in the process. Moreover, efforts were undermined by a public sector reform model that seeks to create value for money through competition, rather than collaboration, and which sees services as transactions where efficiencies of scale are more important than efficiencies of social value.
This public service delivery model often regards people as the problem, but an “enabling state” would see them as the solution, recognizing that individuals and communities often know the solutions to their own problems better than other people, no matter how skilled, and with the right support often have the ability to deal with them.
It’s not just public services that do this. Charities too have become very effective at dramatizing the problem they are there to solve in terms of people, not systems. It helps them appeal to the public and funders for financial support. And if prevention rather than cure were the rule – many charities would find themselves redundant.
Even so, many voluntary organisations do seek to work with others, and/or campaign to tackle problems at their very root. But increasingly the environment is against them, with Ministers and others telling them to “stick to the knitting” of service delivery, their campaigning role under increasing threat, competition rather than collaboration becoming the contract norm, their services funded increasingly narrowly, undermining attempts to develop transformative relationships with those they serve, and smaller specialist and locally based charities that help build strong communities facing financial growing difficulties.
It is hard to avoid the pessimistic conclusion that “doing good” is going backwards, with interventions increasingly atomized, and crisis management becoming the norm.
And yet there are many people and organisations- across all sectors -who wish to work differently, focusing on prevention, practising collaboration, treating people and communities as assets, seeking to build strong relationships and find place based solutions. The barriers may be numerous but austerity has, despite its many problems, created new pressure for change: the status quo is becoming unaffordable, the state cannot do it alone.
But how can we generate change on any scale? The starting point must be to apply these principles to ourselves and find common cause with others, showing leadership, changing the narrative, challenging the current model of how things are done, creating examples of how it can be done differently. By “doing good” in this way, we start to build a movement, and in doing so we may help create not just an “enabling state” but also an “enabling society.”
Caroline Slocock is Direct of Civil Exchange and principal author of Whose Society? The final Big Society Audit, February 2015, and An Independent Question: the voluntary sector in 2016, March 2016.