In these difficult financial times, it is imperative that the voluntary and community sector works effectively with councils. They must find common cause and not fall out
Over the last two years, as local authorities have been forced to make hard and often painful expenditure decisions, their relations with the voluntary and community sector (VCS) has often become strained in many places. This is regrettable and is not in the interests of local communities or citizens.
After all, both councils and the VCS have a shared commitment to serve these communities and citizens. There should be a mutual respect between the two – based on recognition of what they share, their differences and their specific pressures and constraints.
As in any successful and sustainable partnership, there should be space and opportunity for disagreements and for one partner to constructively challenge the other. Councils should always acknowledge the independence of the VCS. At the same time, the VCS must recognise both the political legitimacy, as well as the political, statutory and financial pressures under which local authorities operate. And both must accept that one side will not always be able to respond to every request or demand made of it by the other.
As I go around the country talking and working with local authorities, their public sector partners and the VCS – I am struck by the massive spectrum of the quality and effectiveness of relations between local government and the VCS. It is important that best practice is shared, but it’s equally important that the most appropriate relationships are developed for local circumstances. This requires commitment, goodwill and action by both local authorities and the VCS.
I was recently asked what I might expect to see in a place to know that the relationship was good and working to mutual benefit – and, most importantly, working for the benefit of local communities and citizens. My challenge was to come up with some key elements that I would expect to see and here they are:
The local authority
- its political leadership and senior officers continually recommitting to working with and supporting an independent VCS; testing policy and budget decisions against that commitment; and accepting the right of the VCS to challenge and sometimes oppose their decisions
- involving the VCS in all its key strategic policy, financial, strategic commissioning and practice decision-making
- recognising that the VCS offers a voice for communities; and being willing to cede power and resources to the VCS to act on behalf of local communities
- encouraging ward councillors to work with their neighbourhood community sector
- sustaining grant programmes in addition to contracted services
- when procuring services competitively, ensuring appropriate opportunities for large and smaller VCS organisations
- when procuring from the VCS, adopting contractual and funding arrangements that are sustainable and that allow the VCS provider to innovate whilst not having to subsidise the authority
- brokering quality-based supply chain involvement of the VCS in business and public sector led service delivery
- securing affordable loan-based social investment funds for those VCS organisations that wish to borrow against them
- recognising and supporting the importance of local ‘infrastructure’ and ‘support and development’ bodies such as local Councils of Voluntary Service – and respecting the right of the VCS to determine which organisations they wish to represent them and to offer them ‘infrastructure’ support
VCS, including membership organisations
- ensuring that they understand and appreciate the pressure, constraints and challenges facing local authorities
- building the capacity to respond to the opportunities offered by local authorities to participate in the manner outlined above
- being able to demonstrate that VCS membership bodies are speaking for their members and their members’ beneficiaries; and having the necessary capacity and technical capacity to respond to these opportunities and to create or propose opportunities (this might have to be on shared basis sometimes)
- being fearless in challenging and opposing local authority or government policies and practices that are harmful to their beneficiaries – drawing whenever possible on practical examples to underpin these interventions; and respecting that a local authority will, from time to time, make decisions with which the VCS is unhappy or opposed to
- creating effective local ‘infrastructure’ bodies that can offer quality support to member VCS organisations and speak effectively to local authorities and others on behalf of the local sector (which may well involve some mergers and alliances)
- ensuring that the national VCS membership bodies are aligned with these approaches and re-enforcing messages with national local government bodies and central government
- setting up consortia to bid to run local services when and if the local authority or others put these out to tender
- being willing to work in collaboration, both with local businesses and as delivery partners to businesses bidding for public sector contracts – provided this makes financial sense and is consistent with the VCS’s mission and values
- adopting shared support services and honestly considering mergers where this will protect and enhance mission and create more efficient and effective outcomes
- contributing to initiatives such as localism, community assets transfer and ‘right to supply’ and neighbourhood community budgeting from the perspective of a community organisation willing to share its resources and experiences for local benefit
The current period of austerity and recession is doing lasting damage to public services, communities and our fellow citizens. We should remember, however, that local government and the VCS are both on the side of communities and citizens.
Surely this is the time for them to find common cause and not to fall out. Egos, history and organisational preciousness will serve no one well. Equally, cosy relationships and acquiescence between the two will do no one any favours either.
Rather, we need a robust and respect-based collaborative set of relations and shared action across the country between the two sectors closest to and representative of the people.