Is the Coalition offering an alternative Nirvana?
Thursday, 9th May 2013 at 11:31 am
The Coalition platform is offering its own version of Not for Profit Nirvana and whilst this is most attractive, the sector is well familiar with the risks that a transfer of power brings, says Not for Profit consultants, Jane Bradfield and Julie Nyland.
The current government has led a reform agenda for the Not for Profit sector, with ‘red tape reduction’ as one of its main objectives. Most of the attention (and funding) for the reform agenda has gone to the establishment of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), although the reform agenda also includes streamlined taxation, regulation and funding administration.
Back in May 2010, the Chair of the Not-for-profit Sector Reform Council predicted that the reform agenda, with the ACNC as its centrepiece, would deliver ‘a Nirvana’ for the Not for Profit (NFP) sector.
Unfortunately, the sector is still looking out on a sea of paperwork and waiting for lifeboats to ferry them to the golden land. As Kevin Andrews argued in his recent address to the Centre for Independent Studies, the ACNC appears to have become just another regulatory requirement, adding to compliance burdens rather than streamlining them.
For many, the commitment by Andrews to transform the ACNC into a smaller body, responsible for providing a resourcing function to the sector, and to transfer regulatory responsibilities back to the ATO, ASIC and other relevant bodies, will be greeted with a sense of real relief. The commitment to transferring governance of the reformed Commission to the Not for Profit sector is likely to be even more popular.
But what else would a Coalition Government mean for the Not for Profit sector?
Putting aside that there may be some slippage between Andrews’ clarity of vision and the implementation that may happen through government bureaucracies, the intent is clearly to back off – to wind back the extent to which government treats the sector as an arm of the state. This gets to the heart of a long standing issue for human services providers in the sector that is rarely treated this directly.
Over successive governments of both persuasions, at State and Commonwealth levels, the human services NFP sector has been bound tighter and tighter to government through the funding programs that it delivers. Since the mid 1980‘s there has been a steady march away from an older form of grant based funding that ‘contributed’ to the costs of NFPs pursuing their objectives, to purchase of service contracting (POSC).
POSC locates human services NFPs as contractors delivering social programs that are essentially government designed, although many programs are fundamentally informed by the advocacy of the NFP sector.
With contracting came a multiplicity of complex reporting requirements, ‘mission drift’ as organisations respond to government priorities in their programs and activities, and government program administrators attempting to control risk by micromanaging the affairs of funded organisations.
The issue has been masked by Compacts, partnership rhetoric and other apparent collaborative arrangements between the NFP sector and government. It has been represented by the constant battles over ‘accountability’, red tape and competitive tendering.
The Coalition platform is offering its own version of NFP Nirvana – freedom from government control, respect for sector expertise and support for sector initiative (indeed, Andrews is even proposing quarantining a percentage of funding for family services for self-generated innovation).
Whilst this is most attractive, the NFP sector is well familiar with the risk that a transfer of power back to the Not for Profit sector may be accompanied by a transfer for the responsibility for raising funds, and that a government reverts to making a ‘contribution’ to the cost of services.
So there are challenges here for both the sector and for both sides of government.
For civil society to flourish in the way that Andrews envisions, and for the human services programs of governments to be delivered in effective fashion:
- Political leaders need to be able to prevent the slippage between their policy visions and the enactment of those visions by program administrators – the reform visions for the NFP sector of the current government were equally as attractive and worthy as those of the Coalition, but there is many a slip twixt Minister and bureaucracy
- The balance between accountability and independence needs to be recalibrated, and governments need to focus on the ends – the outcomes of services and activities – and stop trying to control the means by which NFPs produce good outcomes
- The harnessing of financial resources needs to be effective, and any move to diversify away from government funding needs to ensure that NFPs do not simply trade in time spent on red tape into time spent on fundraising
About the authors: Jane Bradfield & Julie Nyland, Directors of BNG NGO Services Online and Bradfield Nyland Consulting.