The voluntary sector as placeshaper, not contractor

The voluntary and community sectors are core to local civil society and should be involved in the shaping of places, says John Tizard

It is disappointing that all too often a conversation about the voluntary and community sector with politician or local authority officers quickly moves to a discussion about public service contracting.

Equally it is more than disappointing when local and national community leaders and activists seemingly only want to talk about public service contracting, and the quality of public sector procurement.

Of course, the voluntary and community sectors (VCS) have always played an important role in the delivery of public services. This has been financially supported by the public sector through grants or, increasingly, through contracts. Partnership has been replaced on many occasions by competitive tendering processes with the VCS being seen by too many public sector leaders and practitioners as little more than smaller and cheaper providers than corporate outsourcing companies.

The imposition of austerity and cuts and a bias towards market based approaches to public service provision have accelerated and amplified the tendency to tender rather than develop service propositions through conversation and partnership.

The VCS is about more than service delivery and certainly much more than contracted public service delivery. Indeed, one could argue that VCS organisations add little value – or rather are unable to add little value – when they are constrained by over prescriptive contract specifications and underfunded contracts. A vibrant and effective VCS should not aspire to be an agent of the state nor a shadow of a corporate business sector. When the public sector coerces VCS organisations in this direction it is missing a huge opportunity and doing both itself and the VCS a great disservice, and – worse still – it is denying local communities something very special.

Local VCS groups embedded in, responsive to and often controlled by their local community can be powerful advocates for those communities and anchors that secure community growth and resilience. They usually have greater access to the most marginalised members of their communities than that of the public or private sectors. They provide voice for as well as practical and emotional support to their communities. They are core to local civil society.

The public sector and local government will recognise the sector’s important attributes and activities. In my experience only a minority of local authorities are willing to turn that recognition into something more tangible.

Local government has a democratic legitimacy to lead place shaping and the VCS should recognise and respect this. However, insightful local government leaders will know that the VCS can complement and contribute to their own placeshaping role. They can speak for and to communities acting as both a two-way conduit and interpreter of opinions, views, policies and programmes. They can advise on the development and implementation of policy. They can and should challenge policies, practices and conditions which are contrary to the interests of the communities and beneficiaries for whom they exist. They can foster, facilitate and champion social action, which is so critical to healthy and resilient communities and places.

Local authorities will wish to involve local businesses, other public services including the police and the NHS and civil society organisations in placeshaping, inclusive growth agendas and in addressing opportunities, inequalities and social progress. I would contend that the VCS should be at the heart of such involvement.

For the VCS to play a civil development role it will require some financial support to build capacity, and to undertake and participate in activities and programmes. Local authorities even at a time of severe cuts should accept that it should support the VCS to play this role. This should ideally be through grant aid not contracts.

Many local authorities have ceased to fund local VCS infrastructure bodies or have severely cut their funding to them. Many have stopped grant support and now deploy open competitive processes when they do offer any support. This is a huge mistake and represents a misunderstanding of what makes for a good effective local VCS infrastructure organisation, its role and its relationship with the wider local VCS. This approach must stop.

Effective local VCS infrastructure must be owned by, representative of and accountable to local VCS groups. Competitive contracting can result in bodies from outside the locality attempting to provide local infrastructure support, and sometimes it has been known for local authorities to contract large private sector corporates for this role. Grant aid offers the most efficacious means of providing much needed financial support.

Of course, local VCS infrastructure bodies must be effective and efficient but above all they must respond to the VCS and community agenda not a local authority’s. A good local VCS infrastructure body will always seek to work with local government and the wider public sector. It will challenge policy and practice on behalf of its members and their communities but never the democratic legitimacy of elected politicians and local government. It will be willing to say ‘no’ and to propose alternative policies and approaches. It has a long term interest in the success of communities and local place.

Local government should see the VCS not principally as public service providers and contractors but as an ally in shaping local places, enabling the building of resilient local communities and economies, challenging austerity, speaking up for the local place and advancing democracy itself.


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