'The market is bust but so is the state'


This is the headline of Philip Stephens’ piece in today’s FT. The intriguing thing about Stephens’ discussion of the relative merits of state and market solutions is that he fails to make any mention of the third - or civic sector. The growing economic and social crisis will turn into reality the warning we have been given by many social and political theorists: state and market alone are not sufficient for sustainable progress – indeed both state and market rely on the civic sector.

 The big question for the coming decade is this: in the face of a depressed market and an indebted state, how can we enhance civic capacity? Unless we are individually and collectively more able to develop and to meet our own needs then it is difficult to see how we face anything other than a decline in the quality of our lives and the fabric of our communities.

 But this issue is still only at the margins of debate. There are now more examples of new and reconfigured public services which draw on capacity outside the state:

  • The Youth Opportunity and Capital Fund provides money which young people control and decide how to spend on activities and facilities in their area. An amazing variety of processes have developed to engage young people and an even more impressive list of initiatives in areas ranging from community cohesion and sport to culture and environment.
  • Direct payments enable social care clients and carers to access payments directly and decide how to spend them. In just a few years this revolutionary idea has spread from the disability movement to being rolled out in councils across England. As more and more people sign up, so new ways for people to collaborate on buying and providing services are starting to emerge.  
  • In March 2009 the Government announced the £30 million Community Assets Programme. This allows local third sector organisations to apply to gain control of and refurbish underused local authority assets.  This initiative, recognises the impact that has been made by community organisations like ‘friends’ of local parks who have worked with councils to revive dilapidated and under-used public spaces.
  • Arguably, the single biggest example is domestic refuse recycling where responsibility for managing domestic waste has shifted from being primarily the responsibility of the local authority to being a shared responsibility between householder and council.

    Yet still this is at the margins. Every public service manager needs to have an account of not just how they provide an efficient service but how they contribute to civic capacity. And the private sector too faces searching questions about its impact on our social resilience and well-being.

    When it comes to the ability of Britain to survive and grow from adversity, statists and free market absolutists are like Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘two bald men fighting over a comb’. In this new world, the state cannot succeed and the market cannot thrive unless we attend to the civic foundations upon which both edifices rest.

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