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[Image] Professor Margaret Harris

Faith and Policy - Session 5, Faith going “Mainstream”

01 July 10

Listen to extracts of the conference: scroll down the page to access podcasts.

A price to be paid Listen here

Does faith WANT to be mainstreamed?” was the key question addressed by Margaret Harris [Emeritus Professor of Voluntary Sector Organisation, Aston University]. Were they aware of the public policy expectations? Could they meet these expectations and remain true to their own faith-based goals?

“Are faith organisations just allowing themselves to be incorporated incrementally into the mainstream of public policy and policy implementation without having made any conscious decision that this is what they want to do or that this is what they ought to do?” – Margaret Harris

Politicians had a mixed track record when it came to respecting faith. Gordon Brown and George W Bush had clear convictions that a distinctiveness enabled faith groups to contribute to resolving social problems. Lord Wei, the new government’s adviser on implementing the Big Society, had proclaimed the importance of his own Christian faith. But she believed this kind of respect was rare. Most policy-makers poorly understood what religion brought to the public sphere; the idea that they could offer money, volunteers and different ideas made them potentially useful for government’s own purposes. This, she said, was a form of instrumentalism.

Joining the mainstream meant “scaling-up” and “professionalising”, and producing “evidence measures” of their effectiveness. Just because this was attractive to large agencies like NSPCC and RNIB did not mean every small organisation would want to be recruited to this process of delivering government policy.

“Close involvement in implementation of governmental policies can come at a high price - in volunteer demoralisation, external regulation, goal deflection, and organisational independence.” – Margaret Harris

Recent experience had shown the tension for faith groups in delivering public services. The Roman Catholic Church had hit major obstacles of conscience in its provision of adoption services for gay couples; the Jewish school system had found government pronouncing on who is or is not a true Jew. Faiths need to stand back and think about public partnership and who in the end would be the winners when goals clashed.

Re-shaping the state Listen here

Francis Davis is a policy adviser to the Department of Communities and Local Government, and has a brief from the government to work on bringing faith groups into delivering public services. His academic position is at the Roman Catholic Blackfriars Hall in Oxford, and is a Fellow of the Young Foundation, a centre for social enterprise. He is excited by the creative opportunities being opened up by the government’s Big Society vision, and has proposed a “civic revolution” by which personal donations would provide much of the capital required for the Big Society Bank. He is also the author of “Moral, but no compass”.

“It always disturbs me as quite shocking that if we cook a hamburger we don’t get upset we might be doing MacDonald’s job, but if we feed the hungry we get terribly worried we might be doing the social worker’s job.” – Francis Davis

He described the welfare consensus of 1945 as very hierarchical. “Faith in the City” in the 1980s had been a last-gasp attempt to re-legitimate it. In fact the Welfare State repeated the very inequalities it was meant to combat, and was unable to deliver many valuable services in society because of its complex bureaucracy.

He described a project in his home town of Southampton where he had been part of a small group in 1992, engaging in new forms of social enterprise [though the term had not yet been coined] to by-pass the bureaucracy of the health service, coming up with ways of delivering hospital-at-home, dentistry, day care and meals on wheels. Some critics said it was worrying for voluntary organisations to be doing the state’s job, but he dismissed that fear, saying you might as well condemn cooking your own burger as doing MacDonald’s job.

“If we don’t reach towards that new consensus in creating new forms of institutions by which to form our common life we’re going to continue investing huge amounts of energy trying to desperately legitimate a form of governance and a form of welfare consensus that is profoundly exhausted.” – Francis Davis

Now was the time, he contended, for voluntary organisations to help re-shape the state. Old methods needed to be smashed in order to get assets to the bottom of the economic pyramid. To do so would be to revive a tradition going strong before the advent of the welfare state, the imaginative pioneer activity of faith driving social reform.

Debate Listen here

John Devine [Churches’ Officer for the North West] from the chair remarked that while government talks about exit strategies, the Church has no plans to exit. Jeremy Carrette [University of Kent] talked about the term “Glocalisation” [coined by the sociologist Roland Robinson] as a way of getting to grips with issues of power and relationships. He believed governments themselves were losing power in a globalised world, and the opposite pole to the global was the local. At that global level, faith groups participated with the United Nations in ways compatible with their mission statements.

Pauline Kollontai [York St John University] wanted to resist government perceiving faith organisations as pawns on a political chart. They had more to offer than putting sticking-plaster over the problems of government. She felt she had not heard today about the role of faith in challenging government.

“I think it’s very easy when you talk about the Big Society to lose sight of that grassroots work which I think is the absolute core of the voluntary sector” – Patricia Stoat

Fleur Bragaglia of the Salvation Army said religious organisations had been great innovators. At the Salvation Army they worked within clear parameters and did not feel threatened. They also did believe that they needed exit strategies if a need ceases or is better served by someone else. If government was to be found wanting, it was at the local level where things were not properly thought out. Patricia Stoat [Faiths Forum for the East Midlands] spoke of her experience in a small and successful project that had no ambition to be big, and said they needed assurance that small amounts of funding for such projects would not disappear.

Report and podcasts compiled by Norman Winter. Recordings of conference sessions have been internally edited.

Click here for the full conference summary.

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