Thursday, 27 September 2012

What is the voluntary sector for?

A colleague who works for another children's charity told me recently of her encounter with a local authority officer who was responsible for commissioning services for children. She had a meeting with the officer to explain a new service for abused children that her charity intends to set up in the local authority area. The service would be free to the children and families and no cost to the local authority either. You might have thought the local authority would be pleased but no, this 'commissioner' rejected the idea on the grounds that the local authority had done a needs analysis and was distributing its resources as it thought fit to meet those needs. Furthermore the proposed new, free service would be 'unhelpful' because it was likely to raise public expectations and create additional work for local authority staff who might be referring children to the service.

The arrogance is breathtaking, yes local authorities have a duty to work out what children in their area need and either provide services themselves or procure them from somewhere else; and yes local authority finances are limited; but to have the audacity that 'we know best' for all the children in our area; and then look a gift horse in the mouth when everyone knows they have less and less to spend, is staggering.

I started my career working with children and families in 1976, in a voluntary organisation. Back then the voluntary sector was where new ways of working with disadvantaged people were dreamt up and tried out, those that worked well were promoted to the public sector and many were taken up. The public sector had great respect for voluntary organisations seeing them as valuable partners in helping people in need. It was understood that a voluntary organisation representing say disabled children, or based in a particular neighbourhood was far better placed to understand and adapt rapidly to the changing needs of that community more perceptively and quicker than public services could.

The Coalition government's view of the voluntary sector goes something like this. Larger voluntary organisations (like Children North East) are just businesses that don't make a profit so they must be cheap; smaller organisations run by volunteers who aren't paid must be really cheap; therefore it must be cheaper for voluntary organisations to run public services than public authorities. So they want us to compete for contracts from local authorities to run services; be paid on 'payment by results' terms and in the meantime take out loans to cover our costs; or form partnerships with investors to set up new services that can then be sold to create a financial return.

Of course voluntary organisations are subject to the same tax, financial, health and safety, employment and other legislation as businesses but there the similarity ends. Our purpose is to improve the lot of our beneficiaries, not to create wealth. As local authorities replace grants with contracts offered by competitive tender, voluntary organisations are having to think and act in more 'business-like' ways to maintain income but that does not mean we are businesses. And what is the point in just being a contractor for the public sector doing what they think best? As head of a children's charity I feel accountable to disadvantaged children, not the public sector. What is more, in common with every voluntary organisation I have a Board of Trustees whose job it is to hold the organisation 'in trust' for the benefit of the beneficiaries - to make sure we do our best for children, not just do the whim of some public body.

A great many voluntary organisations for children, young people and families are currently re-thinking their role and how they will adapt to the changing world around them. We have been here before - study our Annual Reports from the 1940's and you will find a vigorous debate about the role of children's charities in the new Welfare State. As the public sector shrinks, more people will be turned away from state support, but will still be in need and they will have nowhere else to turn but the voluntary sector. The public sector will not only look for cheaper ways to do the same things but eventually need to do different things that are cheaper still - the models for how to do that effectively are far more likely to come from voluntary organisations in touch with the day to day reality of children's lives than a distant 'commissioner' . So, the role of the voluntary sector is clear, it is to understand what is happening to our beneficiaries, innovate to meet their changing needs and where necessary point out how and why they are being failed. In my view to do that effectively we have to retain our independence and that means not being too reliant on public sector contracts. I welcome partnership with local authorities to do that, after all the voluntary sector can bring in additional money for services that the public sector cannot access, but very few local authorities have woken up to that fact.

I am pleased to tell you that my colleague's charity is going ahead with their new project regardless of what the local authority commissioner thinks. The public sector has neither a monopoly on understanding people's needs nor of providing for them, and long may that remain.

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