Today the Times reported that Voluntary Organisations commissioner Kenneth Wain made two important proposals.
First, that the council for the voluntary sector should be partly or wholly elected by the groups themselves, making it more democratic.
Second,that legislation should be changed, making it compulsory for all voluntary organisations to enrol.
Kenneth Wain has also criticized the lack of transparency by the Government in granting funds and exemptions, mostly involving Church organisations and other “free-riders notwithstanding my consistent complaints that these further undermined the law’s credibility”.
I fully agree with Wain's first proposal. This would democratize the council and make it more representative. In this regard, it would be important to have a transparent system to ensure fair representation of the various types of organisation in the field.
As regards the second proposal, I agree with Wain that as things stand, various organisations are not accountable, thus resulting in unfairness towards others which are fully accountable. Here, one should query whether political parties should be included in this equation.
However, full enrolment of organisations should not result in more restrictive legislation, or in increased facilities for the State to co-opt organisations within its structures, in a way which threatens their relative autonomy. Here one should note that civil society is like a coin with two sides. On the one hand, one finds institutionalized and moderate organisations, which are more likely to have a functional relation with state structures. On the other side, there are the more radical and autonomous organisations, which are sufficiently autonomous to articulate alternative and radical discourse.
As regards the lack of transparency by the Government and its preferential treatment towards certain organisations, this confirms that there is no level playing field in civil society. Yet this also reflects the ideological orientation of state structures and the existing hegemonic formations. Despite the populist rhetoric, there is no such thing as a neutral state, or a politics without adversaries.