If those suffering the greatest hardship and injustices in the current status quo aren’t heard and empowered during the processes of devolution, the diversion of power and resources away from them will be much the same after devolution as before. People who are too young, too frail, too stigmatised or simply too far away to get heard in the tactical cut-and-thrust of centralised budgeting and national decision-making will simply live closer to institutions that still don’t represent them. Policy agendas and financial priorities set without their voice or consent will continue to exclude them.
We’re at a junction in the road where we have to stop and make sure we’re seeing ALL the potential avenues ahead, not just the ones that are being presented. And so far, the signposts to devolution point to mayors, business rates, combined service commissioning and economic stimulus – all important issues indeed. But pursuing that road that could lead us further away from (not closer to) hearing the realities and concerns of local people’s and communities’ experiences – and yet that is where devolved freedoms and powers could and should make a really radical and empowering difference.
This is our chance, as the voluntary sector, to advocate powerfully to put the needs of society’s most ignored and often vulnerable citizen’s right at the heart of the new communities and structures that will emerge from devolution. It’s not just our responsibility to advocate on behalf of our ‘beneficiaries’, as we’ve been doing for centuries, but to stand up for them as citizens, contributors, participants and experts in the problems and potential solutions for their families and communities, and for our society and economy more broadly.
For charities who have long viewed and supported their service users as the experts and problem solvers in their own lives, this should come as second nature. We should certainly advocate for the important role of charity and voluntary action within the new structures. But our first priority should be to advocate for inclusive, open, democratic devolution for all people in their own right, without offering ourselves as their proxy representatives. Devolution shouldn’t just bring political decision-making closer to the people most affected by it, it should bring those people right into the heart of decision-making.
Kathy Evans will be speaking at CFG, Locality, NAVCA and Children England’s Devolution and the Voluntary Sector Summit on the 7th September.