Over the past few decades a succession of governments in the UK have repeatedly spoken of the need to decentralise services and put them in the hands of voluntary groups and local communities in order to “empower people”; the latest manifestation of this being David Cameron’s “Big Society” pledge.
Yet, apart from considerations over where the funding from this is going to come from when those same voluntary and community based organisations are facing serious cuts from public sector funders, the fact remains that anyone trying to get a new initiative off the ground in Britain is hamstrung by regulation, planning controls, financial controls, laws and a thousand other obstacles that must be overcome/adhered to/met before any activity can begin. What this ensures is that only established organisations with access to good infrastructure and resources, the very wealthy or those fortunate enough to come into a sudden windfall, such as a substantial Lottery win, can establish anything new.
To be sure each individual part of these regulations, controls and laws can possibly be justified, as a need to protect or insure against some potentially invidious occurrence. But cumulatively it stifles innovation and creativity, inhibits risk-taking and cuts across if not blatantly contradicts common-sense. This is a potent brew that can severely constrain the development of organisations and restricts them to ensuring adherence to and compliance with regulation and legislation as a ceaseless process at the expense of other developments. This does not mean that there is a trade-off between regulation and community based innovations and initiatives. What is difficult if not impossible to achieve is to simultaneously attempt to maximise regulation and minimise risk as well as enhance community and voluntary initiatives involving innovation and risk taking. To do so is to pursue two contradictory, if not mutually exclusive goals
For instance, anyone wanting to start up a new community based initiative or charity in the UK has to go through the following milestones:
Establish governance and risk minimisation procedures,
Ensure you are in compliance with employment, equalities and diversities laws and regulations and you have proper human resources policies, procedures and protocols in place before you are ready to start recruiting staff or volunteers
Be subject to numerous compliance and monitoring regimes from different funders
Be prepared to be inspected regularly if you are providing services to ensure maintenance of quality standards.
And that’s just a sample. For most small-scale organisations and community groups the present burden of regulations, laws and procedures are a huge obstacle course to anyone but large nationally based charities or private sector businesses running anything beyond a corner pub or local shop.
If the government is to be real about encouraging local innovation and the voluntary sector then it has to look at the balance between regulation, proper accountability and the need to empower local people to run services with the minimum of bureaucracy. At the moment it is trying to do both and the result is a guddle. What you may end up with is centralised local authority or other statutory services, being replaced with either large voluntary organisations or private sector companies running services to lower quality and service specification levels. The outcome will be the same: little or no genuine involvement of local people.