United States, United Kingdom and Australian literature on the potential, and actual, impacts on not-for profit (NFP) social welfare and human services agencies of contracting with government highlight the risk that such agencies will become ‘agents of the state’ without remainder, substantially losing their identity and character in the process.
‘Church-related’ agencies are now playing a significant role in the delivery of social welfare and human services in Australia, in a distinctive pattern of involvement with respect to the history and structure of service delivery, and the pattern of policy, political settlement and the constitutional basis when compared to that of both the United Kingdom and the United States.
This outcome of the shift to a contracting regime has received little attention in the academic literature in Australia, neither has there been much attention paid to the actual impact and dynamics of this engagement with government on the mission and identity of church-related agencies.
Theorizing on the impact on NFP agencies of contracting with government has drawn heavily on the literature of organizational sociology, with particular reference to the processes of isomorphism and secularization. There has been an undertone in this literature of an implicit acceptance of sociological determinism in which NFP agencies are ‘fated’ to be inevitably shaped by these processes due to the powerful position from which the government is operating in the contracting relationship.
James C Scott in Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcript has identified possibilities of resistance in social situations characterized by an asymmetry of power. In this context the distinction developed by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life, between strategy and tactics, provides a framework for identifying and characterizing responses by agencies that might enable them to resist at least to some degree, isomorphic and secularizing processes.
Against this background I have identified a range of possible ‘tactics’ that are available to church-related agencies in their engagement with government. Using this framework I will drawn on interviews with a range of senior managers and staff and independent experts, from a purposive sample of church-related agencies and denominational coordinating bodies to explore the possibility that church-related agencies are exercising a degree of agency in their response to the contracting environment to resist, or deflect at least to some degree the impact of the sociological processes associated with the contracting environment.
This paper will provide evidence from the inquiry drawing on interviews and analysis of publicly available documentation from a diverse range of church-related agencies. The account of the tactics, how they have been used, and factors that may be crucial to their effective employment will proceed through sketches of a number of case studies of church-related agencies responses to secularizing and isomorphic processes, their attempts to maintain their theological and ecclesiological identity and mission and to thus resist becoming, without remainder, ‘agents of the state’.