Don’t ignore voluntary sector voice

22 Apr 14

Too many local authorities fail to treat the voluntary and community sector with honesty and respect. As a result, councils are losing potential allies and solutions to their problems

It is a tragedy in the making, but for a combination of reasons the relationship between the voluntary and community sector and local government is becoming increasingly strained.

Local authorities are faced with unprecedented funding cuts and are having to make some of the most challenging budget decisions ever. It is therefore not surprising that councils are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to protect the voluntary and community sector from these cuts. And, actually, most activists in the voluntary and community sector understand this.

However, too many local authorities and their public sector partners are failing to treat the sector with the honesty and respect that it deserves and, consequently, are losing potential allies and solutions to their problems.

I am amazed and disappointed, though no longer surprised, to hear of examples where councils have: unilaterally cut or withdrawn grant funding without prior discussion; sought to impose reduced fees and payments on previously agreed contracts; told the sector that it can bid to run services and then used a procurement process designed for multinational corporates; and told the sector that it can or must take over services without any additional financial support in a matter of weeks.

We have even seen government ministers publicly attack the motives of voluntary organisations that have stepped into meet unmet needs – for example food banks. These approaches are fundamentally unacceptable and counter-productive.

The voluntary and community sector in many places is ready and willing to be involved in strategic discussions with councillors and public sector professionals to consider the hard choices they are facing and the options available. Ultimately, elected politicians have to make and be accountable for these decisions, but often the sector will bring a rich contribution to such debates.

It may have a very good understanding and be the direct voice of communities and user groups; it has ideas on how services can be reorganised – often in very radical ways – to both reduce costs and improve outcomes for service users; and, very importantly, it knows what the local sector can offer in terms of service development and delivery. It rightly can contribute challenge to the debate.

This applies to voluntary and community groups that receive public money and to the vast majority that do not. Organisations might understandably be reluctant to take on responsibility for services that should in their view be funded and run by the public sector. But, of course, organisations unwilling to take over service delivery can offer views and a voice for communities.

Surely, only the most arrogant or totally non-strategic local authorities would not want to harness and mine such rich streams of knowledge, expertise and advice.

The voluntary and community sector is rightly cautious about becoming too drawn into the political process and being associated with hard and sometimes unpopular decisions about which they may wish to campaign and lobby on behalf of their members and beneficiaries. This is understandable and should be respected.

And, of course, local authorities want to be able to speak to those with direct experience, especially in specific service areas. They will also usually wish to discuss these issues with collective membership and representative infrastructure bodies that have a mandate and capacity to speak for the wider sector.

In turn, representative bodies of the local voluntary and community sector may or may not wish to be involved, but I would suggest that if they decide not to be, then they are likely to be failing their members and local communities. Deciding when and on what terms to engage is never easy but this is not a reason to not engage and seek to represent members.

I am impressed by those local authorities that have done some of the following:

  • at a political level, committed to involve the local voluntary and community sector in strategic deliberations, including sharing sensitive information and ideas on the basis of mutual trust; and even seconded voluntary and community sector staff on to local authority project teams
  • established user, voluntary sector and professional working groups to consider options for specific services with a remit to be as challenging to orthodoxy as they wish
  • involved the voluntary and community sector in strategic commissioning and, where appropriate (subject to avoidance of any conflicts of interest), in procurement and in scrutiny
  • sought to develop commissioning and procurement approaches that work for and do not exclude the voluntary and community sector
  • committed not to discriminate against the voluntary and community sector when making budget cuts – but, rather, placing the emphasis on social outcomes
  • taken the Social Value Act seriously (although, sadly, not too many have)
  • recognised and respected the right of the voluntary and community sector to challenge and campaign whilst being involved in strategy development and contracting
  • included sector leaders on local public service leader groups
  • devolved budgets and decisions to communities and community groups
  • established joint task groups to explore how relationships with the voluntary and community sector can be strengthened; to ensure better mutual understanding and the sector’s appetite and readiness to take on more services; and to agree how to develop the sector’s capacity
  • invested in the development of the voluntary and community sector’s capacity to contribute to these initiatives

Local authorities and the voluntary and community sector in their locality serve the same communities and individuals. It is in their mutual interest to find common ground whilst respecting differences. They should campaign together for fairer central government financial treatment of councils. They should also recognise that the social and physical capital of any place is far more than just the public sector, and that this should be at the service of the people.

The public sector would be very mistaken if it ever thinks that it can entice the voluntary and community sector to become subservient to the public sector, or to become the lap dog of any politicians. An independent voluntary sector is vital to strong democratic civil society.

One of its greatest strengths (too often, not fulfilled) is to be a campaigning voice, leading social action for social justice, fairness and equality – rather than being a tame supplicant of the state. I am aware of many examples where the sector has contributed to public policy and decision-making, knowing when to say ‘no’ and when to withdraw, while being effective community activists.

The next few years are going to be very tough for many people and for local government and the voluntary and community sector. These people and their communities will best be served by effective and respectful collaboration between local government and the voluntary and community sector Needless to say, this will ultimately require bold leadership across all sectors.

  • John Tizard

    John Tizard is an independent strategic adviser and commentator on public policy and public services. He works with a range of public, private, third, union and academic organisations. He now holds several non-executive, trustee and chair roles in the VCS and arts sectors. He was a senior executive both at Capita and Scope, and is a former joint council leader

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