The National Council for Voluntary Organisations wants the next government to spend its first 100 days enabling voluntary sector organisations to do what we do best. Sometimes that means central government getting out of the way, but more often it means building strong partnerships between government bodies and voluntary sector organisations that are capable of tackling the challenges faced by local communities.
There are over 160,000 active voluntary and community organisations in the UK. They engage in an incredibly diverse range of activities from health to housing, advice to advocacy. These organisations are close to communities, expert at meeting the needs of marginalised individuals in a personalised way, and use operating models – such as use of volunteers – that deliver wide social value. The sector has enormous potential to help local government deliver the ambitious agenda for change set out in the 100 days manifesto, but that potential has yet to be fully realised.
Realising the potential of voluntary sector organisations to shape and deliver effective public services depends on tackling a number of obstacles to effective partnership working: Like local government, voluntary sector organisations are seeking to meet rising demand for services with reduced government funding. The shift from grants to large contracts and payment by results presents particular challenges for small organisations that lack access to upfront capital and have limited capacity to cdarry financial risk.
Commissioning practices are too often characterised by a focus on cost and price instead of quality and added social value, short timeframes, limited opportunities for dialogue, and disproportionate paperwork. Like many in local government, the voluntary sector is also struggling to make sense of a new commissioning landscape of which local authorities are only one body amongst several, often with complex and overlapping boundaries and remits.
Yet examples do exist of local authorities that are actively tackling these challenges and forging productive partnerships with voluntary sector organisations. Social value approaches to public services favour the preventative and personalised interventions that are the specialism of voluntary sector organisations and which deliver value for money to the taxpayer in the long run.
Consider Redbridge, where the award-winning First Response Service has created a unique multi-agency partnership model that reduces dependency by bringing together 45 local organisations ranging from the fire brigade and police to Age UK and local authority teams.
In some places, partnerships are built around a Compact. For instance, in Newcastle a high level strategy group has been created to bring together voluntary sector organisations, elected members, CCG and Health and Wellbeing board representatives, and people from local Parish Councils. Elsewhere, community budgets pool scarce resources and ensure they are directed to meeting the needs of communities, rather than departmental silos and individual budget-holders.
In the most progressive authorities, culture change in commissioning is also underway to put into practice existing guidance and improve opportunities for organisations to not just deliver services but also inform their design. In Sutton, council officers and representatives of the local voluntary sector collaborated on a review of the capacity-building needs of the sector that led to a four-year infrastructure support and capacity building fund which has won a national Compact award for its wide-ranging impacts.
Realising the ambitious agenda for change outlined in the 100 days manifesto depends on exploiting the potential of the full range of government and voluntary sector organisations. The days of waiting for central government to transform the lives of local communities are long gone. If we don’t step up to the plate then who will?