One of David Cameron's big ideas, perhaps the biggest in his "sociocentric paradigm", is to rely on the voluntary sector to deliver more of the services currently provided by government. It seems, though, that this is less a big idea, and more an enhancement of the extensive use that this Government already makes of charities.
We learn today, from coverage of a National Audit Office report in the FT, that 12 of the largest charities receive £700m a year of taxpayers' money between them from "several thousand different funding streams", and that they invest considerable resources (£381,000 each per year on average) "simply managing these multiple sources of money". All charities combined "received £10.7bn of public money in 2004-5".
It is hard to know whether to be more critical of the unbelievable bureaucracy that can produce thousands of funding streams, the waste and distraction that must stem from managing this, or the broader issue that what makes charities what they are is precisely that they are not beholden to government and serving the government's purpose, and that making them clients of the state threatens to gradually turn them into little more than extensions of the Greater Bureaucracy.
Certainly we shouldn't underestimate the bureaucratic impediment and distraction. The FT reports that "charities complain that the public sector is a difficult customer, often demanding masses of information and paperwork when tendering, not paying the full cost of services or staff provided and requiring burdensome compliance procedures. Contracts can be too short and include inappropriate terms and conditions."
But on balance, it's the latter that matters the most. In coopting their services, Labour and the Conservatives are in danger of corrupting them, and killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.
[The title of this entry is a reference to a quote from P.J. O'Rourke, which you can find here]