Last month, we wrote about the Government’s belated but welcome attempts to crack down on the disbursement of the legally-protected British aid budget.
For too long, the impression had been given that aid spending was less about doing good than about looking good, sending a signal about the government’s tenderness and moral worth.
Equipped for the first time with a majority, David Cameron found the space to set Department for International Development’s house in order, and that drive for efficacy and accountability seems to have extended into the domestic charitable sector.
According to a collaboration between Newsnight and Buzzfeed, the Government is withholding funds from high-profile charity Kids Company, pending an internal restructuring and the reassigning of its charismatic founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh, away from her current executive role.
At roughly the same time Genevieve Maitland Hudson, a former Kids Company employee writing for social impact consultancy Osca, provided an eye-opening insight into how little scrutiny such charities faced regarding the outcomes they secured, which is well worth reading in full.
In March, no fewer than three of Kids Company’s directors resigned whilst Dominic Cummings, formerly an advisor in the Department of Education, claimed that officials there had tried to stem the flow of funds to Kids Company but were overruled by the Prime Minister after Batmanghelidjh appealed to him directly.
This spat over Kids Company is indicative of broader problems with the way that the Government has come to make use of third sector organisations to deliver public services, which are exemplified by the two tweets below:
The answer to the first tweet has to be ‘Yes’, subject to a few qualifications.
As Maitland Hudson described in her article, some charities now depend on Government funding for more than 80 per cent of their income – yet use the moral cachet of being charities to resist the transparency and accountability we increasingly expect of the public sector.
Not only do the reports produced by such charities often fall short of the standards set by voluntary releases by private sector businesses, but at the time she was writing ACEVO, the charity umbrella group, was lobbying against the extension of Freedom of Information legislation to charities.
Private sector organisations bidding for Government contracts already have to fulfil certain criteria, and there is no compelling reason for charities to be different, especially when in financial terms they’re basically independent and rather opaque agencies of the state.
All the Government is doing to Kids Company is withholding funding due to concerns that the money wouldn’t be spent properly. That isn’t “meddling”, it is simply the duty of anybody disbursing public funds. A neglected duty, admittedly, but a duty nonetheless.
As for the second question, the answer is simple: because giving Kids Company money looked good.
Batmanghelidjh has been very successful in cultivating her public profile, and giving her charity what it wanted led to good press and the chance of a little of that star dust rubbing off on the Government.
Ministers would also have been well aware that said media profile could very easily be turned against them: Batmanghelidjh has not been shy (£) about trying to leverage her star power into more funds.
It suited both ministers or charity bosses to treat such spending, to borrow the language of the sacraments, as “a visible and external sign of an inner and spiritual grace”.
With domestic charities, as with aid spending, the problem was the same: it wasn’t in the interests of either group to go rooting around behind the good headlines before whistleblowers forced their hand.