Our fortnightly series continues.
Enabling civil society
In this series, we’ve argued that reducing demand for government is vital if we want to contain the size of the state. But is there any evidence that this approach works in practice? Are there examples of advanced economies anywhere in the world whose people do not need a state that is as big as our own – and therefore don’t demand one?
Taxes are correspondingly low and the quality of public services high. Singaporeans live for six years longer than Britons do. Their school system produces excellent results: the second best in the world according to the PISA league tables for maths, reading and science. Singaporean crime rates are famously low and overall unemployment is less than two per cent.
So how do they do it?
Small states need strong societies
The answer is through a social safety net in which the role of society is placed before that of the state. It begins with personal responsibility. Adults are expected to provide for themselves – not only in the short-term, but also through a mandatory savings scheme. For those who can’t stand on their own two feet, family is regarded as the “first line of support.” There is zero embarrassment about building a welfare state around – not instead of – the duty of citizens to provide for their children and elders.
But as important as families are, they are not perfect, and sometimes they’re far from perfect. So what happens when they fall short? What is the second line of support for the poor and vulnerable?
In Singapore, the answer is country’s Many Helping Hands approach. Social care is not seen as the sole responsibility of government, but also the efforts of charities, community groups, volunteers, donors and the various institutions that co-ordinate civil society.
The other Beveridge report
Is the Singaporean model of any relevance to the UK, where the social safety net is centred on the welfare state? As we’ve explained over the last three chapters, there is a lot more we can do to strengthen the British family. But what about voluntary action in the wider community? Is a major role for voluntarism only possible in what Lee Kuan Yew, the father of modern Singapore, called a “Confucian society“?
William Beveridge, the architect of the British welfare state, didn’t think so. In his 1948 report Voluntary Action: A Report on methods of Social Advance he said that an active civil society was an “outstanding feature of British life” .
Far from being restrictive of liberty, Beveridge argued that “vigour and abundance of Voluntary Action outside one’s home, individually and in association with other citizens, for bettering one’s own life and that of one’s fellows, are the distinguishing marks of a free society.”
Furthermore, he didn’t see any contradiction between civil society and the welfare state. Though, given the post-war situation, he believed that “the State must in future do more things than it has attempted in the past,” he also believed that “room, opportunity, and encouragement must be kept for Voluntary Action.”
It was one of great mistakes of the post-war era that his advice was ignored.
The real Singapore-on-Thames
It wasn’t until the end of the 20th Century that politicians began to wake up to this error. In 1999, Tony Blair expressed his frustration with the monolithic welfare state. But the ideological breakthrough was made the Conservatives under William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, and David Cameron. Indeed, by 2010 they made civil society (rebranded as the “Big Society”) a major part of the Conservative election platform:
“Our alternative to big government is the Big Society a society with much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility; a society where people come together to solve problems and improve life for themselves and their communities; a society where the leading force for progress is social responsibility, not state control.”
Years later, after the Brexit referendum, both Right and Left became obsessed with the idea of “Singapore-on-Thames” – which misunderstood the politics of both countries completely. The irony is that it was under Cameron that the Conservatives came closest to embracing the real Singaporean way of doing things.
The lesson of the Big Society
Unfortunately, in government, implementation was patchy. Real progress was made on decentralising the state itself – for instance, through the creation of Free Schools and the devolution of power to local communities. However, the same cannot be said for the other half of the agenda i.e. promoting voluntary action.
The 2010 manifesto had some lofty aspirations for volunteering: “our ambition is for every adult in the country to be a member of an active neighbourhood group”. But though the talk was big, the action wasn’t.
By far the most concrete outcome (because it had the personal backing of the Prime Minister) was National Citizen Service: a volunteering-based programme for 16 and 17-year-olds. But despite generous funding, NCS missed and lowered its target participation rates. Last year it had its funding cut by two-thirds compared to its pre-Covid peak.
The programme now seems destined to share the same fate as Tony Blair’s Millennium Volunteers scheme: gradually losing its identity as it is downsized, reconfigured and absorbed into the general background of government grant giving .
Looking ahead, a cynic might write off the Big Society a lesson against state interference in civil society. And yet with the state bursting at the seams, the desire to catalyse other ways of meeting social needs has not gone away – nor should it.
Should we revive National Service?
Pointing to worryingly low levels of skills, mental well-being and social connection among young people, Onward argues for a more ambitious programme of service, one in which all young people would be enrolled by default, unless they deliberately opted out.
However, this highlights the contradiction of government attempts to encourage the voluntary spirit. If participation is only for those who choose to join-up, then why not fund voluntary organisations instead of a state scheme? If, on the other hand, participation is at all compulsory, then, by definition, it isn’t voluntary.
So is there anything that government can do to enable voluntary action – the volunteering of time, in particular?
Public funding can help, but not to the extent of crowding out voluntary donations. More can be done to clear away regulatory obstacles, but not so much that safeguarding is compromised. Our public services can make more use of volunteers, but not if this means leaving charities and community groups short of recruits.
What would Adam Smith do?
There is, however, one way in which government can promote voluntarism without simultaneously treading on it, and that is to provide enabling infrastructure.
It’s a principle that also applies to private enterprise. As Adam Smith argued in the Wealth of Nations, it is the duty of government to erect and maintain public works which “facilitate the commerce of any country, such as good roads, bridges, navigable canals, harbours, etc.”
If the benefits are too widely shared and the scale of investment too great for any one enterprise to shoulder alone, that is when the state should do the job. Therefore, instead of trying to revive National Service, it would be better if public resources were used to provide the enabling infrastructure that the voluntary sector needs but can’t provide itself.
Enabling civil society without getting in its way
The most obvious unmet need is for a national volunteering database. This country has no one-stop-shop where every volunteer can look for volunteering opportunities or where every voluntary group can advertise for volunteers. Such information that is available is fragmented. An NCVO survey found that after lack of time and motivation, the biggest barriers to volunteering were information problems.
A volunteering portal for the whole sector would benefit from network effects, meaning that the value of the service to each user goes up with number of users. This is why online markets tend to be dominated by the largest providers such Amazon, Facebook and Uber.
Network effects would be especially beneficial to the voluntary sector because volunteering is not something that people have to do. Therefore the ability to find the right sort of volunteering opportunity, in the right location and at the right time is important. A comprehensive online resource would also make it easier for schools and workplaces to run group volunteering schemes, by reducing the effort in finding multiple placements for pupils and employees.
But despite these and other advantages, developing an online network on a national scale is a major undertaking. It is beyond the resources of any individual organisation, which is why no such network currently exists. Hence, the role for government.
Like a national road work, a national volunteering portal would be equally accessible, from the smallest community groups to the biggest charities. There’d be no choosing between voluntary groups and no setting up of community service quangos in competition to the voluntary sector. Above all, volunteering – while made much easier – would remain voluntary.
Of course, while a flourishing civil society can help to reduce the demand for government, no one expects it to replace the public sector. So, tomorrow, we look at what the state can do to reform itself.