Putting faith in public services
This week we launched the second report in Demos’ Inquiry into Faith and Society, called Faithful Providers, which explores the vexed question of faith-based organisations delivering public services.
The findings were clear. Qualitative interviews with 20 faith groups showed they can be highly effective providers, offer value for money, and added ‘social value’ to communities. So why are Government and local authorities so squeamish about commissioning them to deliver services?
First let us clarify the benefits. Our research shows faith can be a great motivator for public service providers. Many staff and volunteers spoke about their faith as leading them to work long hours for little pay, and to remain resilient in the face of challenges.
As the Government and local authorities commission more private sector delivery, in pursuit of cost-effectiveness, many worry that the profit motive will lead to bare-minimum services and tick-box exercises. Faith groups counter this service-based race to the bottom, inspired by their faith’s sense of duty and responsibility to show compassion and work the extra mile for those less fortunate. In short – a ‘faith service’ ethos.
Driven by this sense of duty, faith groups can be incredibly effective. Organisations like SPEAR Hammersmith and City Gateway do fantastic, innovative work that is often held aloft as best practice.
And yet for these organisations, as well as many others we profiled, religion remains firmly in the background: never advertised or discussed with those using the service – particularly young people – unless they are themselves religious or express curiosity. The only place where faith is apparent is in the language of duty, caring and responsibility.
Moreover, faith-based providers appear to be especially effective at delivering services when a ‘holistic’ approach is valued: when service users need to be treated as human beings, with patience, empathy and attention to a wide range of aspects in their lives. Research from the US suggesting higher success rates in drugs and alcohol rehabilitation is just one example.
Faith groups also bring many benefits on a community level that the private sector struggle to match. Their long-standing presence in their community, good relationships with local individuals and ability to improve interfaith dialogue and community cohesion are all advantages that a balance sheet fails to accurately reflect when weighing up funding decisions.
Which brings us back to our original question. Why are public service commissioners so averse to taking advantage of these benefits?
Critics often argue that faith-based service providers are more interested in delivering faith than delivering services, and exclusively serve members of their own faith community. Yet, we saw no evidence of aggressive proselytising, and every organisation we spoke to delivered services to a wide-range of citizens, of no faith and different faiths – in accordance with their public service ethos.
Fears over discrimination, in either service provision or employment, can be allayed by local authorities using their discretionary commissioning powers to make funding conditional on their openness. We recommend that faith groups should be forced to work with people or groups of other creeds in their community if they are to continue providing public services.
Ultimately, authorities should be encouraged to weigh up the advantages for themselves. If religious groups can generate benefits beyond just cost efficiencies, then isn’t it time we weren’t afraid to put more faith in our public services?