Sunday, September 19, 2010

A view from within the WA human services sector: Critique by an experienced manager

"The dominant story is of a corporatised, economics-driven sector, where leaders are promoted on their ability to run businesses that happen to be charities"
Lucy Morris
Just been reading Lucy Morris's excellent article The Economics of Charity: Who Cares  in the Australian journal Third Sector Review.  Lucy is an academic at the Notre Dame University in Fremantle and an experienced CEO in the human services sector in Western Australia. Her critique is even more important because it is made by an experienced and long serving manager in the human services industry in this state.

Lucy's piece is an important and scathing critique of the dominant pro market (neoliberal) policy agenda that has dominated public policy making for the human services and not- for- profit sector in Australia over the last two decades.

Market driven policies have fundamentally transformed the human services sector and contributed to many of the problems that the sector now faces. For example, Lucy Morris shows how the application of market led, neoliberal policies combined with the gendered nature of the human services workforce and the sector's religious, social and ethical underpinnings have created oppressive employment practices. 

Furthermore, she argues that these market led approaches have transformed and repackaged service users into "consumers" and created hierarchies of need which disadvantage the vulnerable and the most needy. The consequence is often care that is illusory and discriminatory. Morris sees that these market led approaches have distanced managers from service recipients who have become dehumanized, scapegoated and objectified.

Morris writes that increasingly not- for- profits are economically pressured to seek clients that bring in money and don't require intensive support. Governments seek to drive down the price of services to the most vulnerable and needy (the uneconomic clients). So agencies are continually under pressure to get large client numbers and to chase more contracts.  The difference between the business/corporate sector and the not-for-profit sector has become less clear.

Her argument is that these market led and corporatised approaches have largely benefited governments, the funding body or business, rather than improved the quality of care and the lives of service recipients.

Morris is no less critical of managers in the human services sector:
"Charitable corporate governance discussions are focused on strategic planning, financial projections, bottom line decisions, returns on investments and tax breaks. Large charities employ corporate minded CEO's and staff, whose salaries soak up surpluses that used to sustain non-profitable client services. These costs are accepted because CEO's promise to update, professionalise and make the charity more accountable, as it is portrayed as needing economic and governance makeovers. These assumptions seem unquestioned"
In my view Morris is spot on. Hers is an important and accurate critique. I share her concerns and have argued for many  years that the market- led and business approaches imposed on and adopted by the human services and not- for profit sector are a major cause of the fundamental crises that affect many parts of the industry.

What is particularly troubling is that so many in the sector hope that the implementation of the recommendations of the Barnett Government's Economic Audit Committee Report will be the solution. But it is shaped by and reflects the same discredited market led and corporate/business  ideology.The EAC report has just cleverly repacked that ideology into a more acceptable and attractive package- that of social enterprise, enterprising not- for- profits and citizen driven services.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The crises within the Wilderness Society

Sadly the crisis that has engulfed one of Australia's most respected and successful campaigning not-for profits continues to play out in public. The long serving Executive Director of the Wilderness Society Alex Marr has resigned just months after the election of a new National Committee dominated by a breakaway group (known as Save the Wilderness Society). Alex Marr is now threatening legal action against the Management Committee and the Society.

After a long struggle, that included a hearing in the Tasmanian Supreme Court, the breakaway group (that now forms the Management Committee) seized control of the agency earlier this year from a Committee controlled by Marr allies, citing concerns about Alex Marr's attempts to centralise control, his management style and approach and concerns about the governance and directions of the Society.

Not surprisingly, Alex Marr's resignation letter  accuses the new management committee of cronyism, of wanting to return the society to a political protest organization and of threatening the society's financial future. Some of the same concerns were directed at Marr and the former Management Committee.

Bitter internal conflict and tension are common in not-for-profits, particularly where competing values and ideologies play out and the agency is committed to fighting for hard won social, environmental and political change. 

In the last few years the Wilderness Society has fought many tough battles with corporations and governments, and found itself under direct legal and political attack by those powerful interests. So it is not surprising that internal conflict has erupted.

Sometimes such internal tension and conflict are necessary to revitalize and reinvigorate NFP's. Let's hope that the Wilderness Society can recover from this crises and emerge stronger to reposition itself again as one of Australia's leading environmental advocacy and campaigning organizations.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Poetry and political activism

In an interview with Phillip Adams on Late Nite Live, the South African political activist, freedom fighter and Judge Albie Sachs recounted that he was propelled into political activity by poetry. 

Sachs told how after hearing a live reading of the poetry of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca  he was inspired to take up the fight against the South African government's Apartheid system. For Sachs the power of poetry was that it was able to link the soul of a person with the big public events and struggles of the world.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Noel Pearson and the shallowness of much social justice debate

Noel Pearson in his 2010 John Button Oration demolishes, quite rightly, much of the social justice rhetoric that the Labor Party faithful deploy, labelling it as hollow and meaningless:
"Whilst social justice is still part of Labor’s intra-mural pieties – a useful rallying cry for the true believers – in front of the nation at large the concept is muted and liturgical.

.... the notion of social justice is completely elusive and has for too long remained undefined by those who say they were and are all for it. Both the end state of justice and the means by which that end state is supposed to be achieved, is utterly undefined."
His diagnosis is partly correct and is a challenge to all who use the term "social justice".  But just as vague and meaningless for me is his idea of the "radical centre", which to me is hardly radical at all. 

As is often the case I find myself challenged by Noel Pearson's analysis and his intellectual critique, but disagreeing with his conclusions and solutions.

Will we ever see a National Charities Commission in Australia?

Another Federal Government Inquiry has called for the setting up of a National Charities Commission to regulate the charitable and not-for-profit sector, particularly those charities and church groups that enjoy tax free status.  A link to the Senate Inquiry report is here.

The Senate Inquiry Report recommends that such a Commission would have the power to remove the tax free status of any organization found to be in breach of the rules, or not acting in the public interest (by applying a public benefit test).

This Senate Inquiry was instigated by Independent Nick Xenophon as a result of serious concerns about churches such as the Church of Scientology and Hillsong Church, who benefit significantly from their tax free status. 

The Senate Inquiry found that no agency- not the Productivity Commission, not the Taxation Office, not Treasury- could identify the value of tax concessions to charities and churches, although a conservative estimate is between $1-$8 billion.

This is the fourth Senate inquiry into the not for profit sector in a decade that has recommended greater scrutiny of churches and not- for- profits with charitable status.  The recent Productivity Commission Inquiry and the Henry Taxation Review also called for a similar Charities Commission. 

However, there has been no action on any of those Inquiries, although the Labor Party has committed to establish such a Commission.

In a previous post on this issue (here) I noted the double standard inherent in the current situation where politically active groups like AIDWATCH can have their tax free status removed by the Australian Government because they criticize Australian Government policies, whilst breaches of the code and rules by Churches are ignored

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

International conference on ten years of action of global poverty

The International Conference Ten Years of War against Poverty is currently taking place in Manchester to review progress in addressing global poverty and to identify what needs to be done over the next decade. 

Different perspectives on the Conference presentations and debates can be read on blogs by Michael Edwards, (civil society scholar), Duncan Green (Oxfam) and Chronic Poverty.

Why not-for-profits should be wary of corporate social responsibility

This great piece by Russell Mokhiber from Corporate Crime Reporter  shows why not-for-profits should be wary of any involvement in corporate social responsibility initiatives. Frankly, they are being used.

As Mokhiber (and many other writers have shown) corporate social responsibility is not just an oxymoron but a sham:
"Corporate social responsibility has been used by companies to ward off both the activists and to reduce the probability of more onerous government regulation,"

"And companies pretend to be socially responsible, but they really don't do very much. This keeps the activists at bay. And it might serve to keep government regulators at bay by saying - see, we are doing it on our own."