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15 mins with Jane Ide: Getting between the cracks of big systems

Jane Ide is chief executive of the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (Navca). She talked to New Start about the power of grassroots organizations that can reach into the ‘cracks’ between big local systems

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On the sector adapting to changing times

I’m not in the least blasé, but I do think that there’s more resilience in the sector than two or three years ago. We’ve been going through austerity for seven years, the world has changed radically in that time, and as a sector we’ve learned that we have to adapt. I think many Navca members would say ‘it’s still tough, it’s not getting any easier, but we’re still here’. People will always find a way to deliver what they are there to deliver, and do it with passion and commitment. But it’s true that while times continue to be difficult for the sector, it’s much harder for the people we are here to support. The very real impacts of economic and social policies continue to be acutely felt, and so we have a job to get on with.

On getting between the cracks of big systems

The voluntary and community sector is a very broad church, and the part of the sector that Navca represents is the small local, community and voluntary groups. The thing our members bring to the table is that very local, very grassroots organisations get where water wouldn’t – they get into the cracks between the big systems of health and civil society organisations, to address the issues and needs that too easily get overlooked in ‘big picture’ thinking.

The need for and the value of those really focused, place-based organisations has become more widely recognised the more that the big systems have come under pressure. In many cases that has opened doors; but I think perhaps too often those doors have only opened a crack, when actually we would argue they could be opened much wider to allow groups grown from within communities to do more and to be more actively involved in developing and co-producing solutions for their own areas.

On moving beyond public service paternalism

Local authorities are a key relationship for most, if not all, of our members and we see a very mixed picture across the country. In some areas, there are good, vibrant relationships between councils and local organisations. In others, it’s a very difficult relationship. And in some, there is not even a relationship at all. When any organisation comes under pressure and loses capacity in the way councils have, everything shrinks inwards and they don’t have time for creative conversations. That’s really unfortunate, because they are missing a trick. Where there are good, strong relationships and leaders in councils who are determined to engage with the voluntary sector, we are seeing great examples of the transformation of service delivery.

The UK has a long tradition of a paternalistic approach in public services, but in times of such deep system change the voluntary sector has a big role to play in showing that communities can be resilient, independent and self-directing. They know better than anyone else what the real problems are; and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they know what the solutions. They just need a bit of help sometimes to make those solutions happen.

On building local power

What would help most is more energy being put in by local authorities into stepping outside of their comfort zone and really being open to what the sector can offer. It’s not about the transfer of physical assets, it’s about the transfer of power. It’s a real challenge for councils to say to stakeholders ‘we think there’s a problem, you show us how to help you tackle that’.

Any local officer or leader can make the choice to have a more meaningful relationship with the voluntary sector. We recognise it’s not that easy to just go out and meet ‘the voluntary sector’. There are a lot of organisations out there. But Navca members can be the convenors for conversations, can help support the creation of these relationships and can bring realism into those relationships as well.

On localised devolution  

Navca members in parts of the country where devolution is happening say that it’s not going far enough. Power is being regionalised, but it’s not being localised. There is this almost inevitable process where a new bureaucracy is created and it’s still not filtering down to a grassroots level. The way devolution is being implemented tends to be from within existing structures. I think that’s a huge challenge, and I think the jury is out from the sector as to what the real value of this will be.

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