In the 1990s, the idea of the marketplace as a terrain where communities of practice from business, government and the voluntary sector might tackle entrenched social problems found traction as a seemingly progressive route to reforming criminal justice. Initially associated with the so-called Third Way thinking of the New Labour government, a blend of market reforms and communitarianism found their way into subsequent Conservative–Liberal Democrat Coalition (2010–15) and Conservative (2015–) policies for encouraging civil society, local authorities and private companies to assume greater responsibility for penal welfare and ‘offender management’ functions. Since then, policy discourse has been replete with claims as to the transformative power of marketising approaches for saving public (‘taxpayer’) money, making criminal justice more efficient and responsive to public security, embedding local justice and reducing reoffending. Unconvincing, incoherent and wasteful as these claims have turned out to be in many cases (see Conclusion, this volume), the pace and scale of outsourcing was considerably accelerated under the austerity programme following the general election of 2010.
The ‘mixed market’ model was developed to incentivise nongovernmental providers such as voluntary/third sector organisations and commercial businesses to take on the contracted delivery of prison, probation and rehabilitative activities (Hucklesby and Corcoran, 2016; Tomczak, 2016). Within the voluntary sector, the corporately organised, larger charities have consistently been most welcoming of this model, having since the 1990s actively lobbied government to allow commercial and charitable contractors to ‘replac[e] the state’ in many fields as providers of public services (ACEVO, 2003, 2014).
Prompted by the reconstruction of penal welfare as an entrepreneurial domain, there is also a wider tendency among voluntary sector organisations (VSOs) to brand their marketable attributes as innovative, flexible, niche or specialist, softly anti-establishment, locally embedded and whole person-oriented entities. This language is often contrasted with the supposed impersonality, inefficiency, controlling impulses and bureaucratically bound characteristics attributed to state public services.
Existing literature differs on the position of the voluntary sector under these conditions. At the end of the last century, commentators were already warning that the large-scale expansion of public funding for the voluntary sector was effectively institutionalising it as a dependent ‘shadow’ of government (Wolch, 1990). This confirmed to some that VSOs were further jeopardising their distinctive roles and purposes by aligning their interests with those of corporate philanthrocapitalist or state agendas (Seddon, 2007).