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Voluntary and community sector 2012: Rolling with the punches

We asked six experts to give their verdicts on the events of 2012 and suggest ideas for progression in 2013. In our sixth instalment, Richard Caulfield calls on the voluntary and community sector to find its voice

Trying to look back over the last year for the voluntary and community sector is difficult, partially from what seems to become a fading memory and partly because I feel as though the record has been stuck – both from the sector and from government.

I think ‘localism’ was meant to make things easier for the sector, make it clearer where we need to engage, open more lines of communication and create a momentum for change within our communities. The reality is that for far too many of our communities, and for far too many of our local organisations, the last year has been about rolling with the punches.  Far too often groups and organisations are busy dealing with and reeling from the latest blow to be able to look up and make plans for the future.

This time last year I was recounting stories of how difficult many organisations found it to plan in the current environment – lack of clarity from funders on their plans and knowledge some cuts would be coming while little sign of new opportunities arising.  The end of this year and the message seems to be the same – if not worse – given the upheaval in the NHS as well as local government.

The year has seen many groups disappear – some in a planned way, dying gracefully, and some in a rather more distressing way due to a range of issues generally related to bad financial planning either caused by incompetence or over optimism.

There have been too many times when ‘I told you so’ would be the easiest thing to say: government has refused to listen when initiatives like the work programme were launched with the sector being used as ‘bid candy’.  The results are not satisfactory and the sector (in general) continues to be sidelined with many effective interventions/projects having disappeared.

There has been confusion in the sector, the blurring of lines between the voluntary sector, social enterprise and private business, and the drift into each other’s territory adds to that confusion; I have previously written about the move by Serco into the Big Society initiative National Citizen Service and the Groundwork jolly into issuing parking tickets.  There is no wonder people are confused about who the sector is and what we are about.

Also we have seen the increasing development of new ‘industries’ within the sector – how to measure your social impact, preparing for the social value bill, how to build a consortia, have all generated thousands of pounds for associated consultancies, and in my view delivered very little thus far.  Add to the developing market around social finance – we even had a paper from Big Society Capital justifying the market – when in truth this was a government answer to a question that has not really been posed by the sector.

Towards the end of the year we have seen the voluntary and community sector playing a major role and very much in the headlines. The increase in poverty in our communities is shining a spotlight on the sector’s role as safety net, as it responds to need through foodbanks. This response is excellent: but this must be temporary. We need to ensure that a wealthy nation like ours does not leave people in the sort of poverty that needs such action.

So what about next year? How do we change things? Firstly I hope the sector discovers its voice. Recently I have spoken to staff in national service delivery organisations who are concerned that they are not allowed to speak out.  We cannot have a situation where the voluntary and community sector is gagged by its relationship with government and funders.  We have to speak truth to power and we have to provide voice for our service users and give our service users voice.

My second hope is that we can use the intelligence garnered through the sector to work effectively with local public sector partners to transform services on the ground.  It is clear to me that the scale of cuts is such that service reconfiguration will be an ongoing discussion.  As painful as this is, we all need to take our organisational and sectoral goggles off and see what we can deliver within current resources that will have the maximum impact: ‘more for less’ is pointless rhetoric, we need to do the best we can by our communities with the resources we have.

My wish for the new year is that colleagues will start to understand that ‘grants’ are not some romantic thing of the past and some relic of a bygone age of sector dependency, but are a mechanism for delivering vital services at the right scale, for creating innovation and delivering added value within the system. When grant funders tell me applications are down because organisations believe they are not a good thing, I worry that through our own rhetoric we are killing off a vital part of the sector’s lifeblood.

I have written this at pace – forgetting my deadlines as ever – and I realise that my three wishes/hopes for the sector match very nicely the campaign we started over two years ago – Listen, Value, Invest.

I hope 2013 is the year when the government listens to the concerns raised by the sector, when partners value the role of the sector when we are discussing and implementing cuts and service redesign, and that the sector will continue to see investment through grants, commissioned service – and perhaps just a smattering of social finance!

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