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John Tizard: Let’s hear it for relational partnerships between the public sector and VCS

Monday August 27th, 2018

Almost without exception, when I talk to trustees, staff and volunteers at small voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations and to those involved in local VCS infrastructure bodies, there is one very clear message: they are disappointed and frustrated in equal measure with the public sector’s (including local government’s) approach to commissioning and procurement.

John Tizard

John Tizard

They speak of, and provide much evidence of, disproportionate processes and an unyielding fixation on competitive contracting, which all too often includes ‘payment by results’ arrangements. They ‘politely’ talk about how, over the years, public bodies (especially local authorities) have come to conflate commissioning with procurement – and competitive procurement to boot. Frankly, if I were them, I would shout, let my frustration show, and be far less polite and accepting.

Marketisation, based on the ideology of competition and contracting, seems to have come to dominate the minds and shaped the actions of both politicians and public officials.

Commissioning is now, more often than not, seen as little more than a means to procure services rather than (as it should be) a means of identifying needs and outcomes to be pursued, the actions and options available for meeting those needs and achieving those outcomes, and ideally talking with specialist VCS organisations both about what is needed and what the VCS might be able to offer. Consequently, the expertise and the representative voice for communities and service users that the VCS can offer is lost. Too many in the public sector seemingly refuse to hear this voice; and equally, they seemingly do not wish to distinguish between contracting with a multinational corporate and supporting a local community group.

The situation has been deteriorating progressively over the last few decades but has demonstratively become worse as austerity has bitten ever harder.

This must change. And the irony is that it can change, for there are (just a few) local authorities and others that are managing to break out of the competitive contracting straitjacket – though they are still very much in the minority.

The Government has published its Civil Society Strategy and claims to want the VCS to play an important role in communities and as providers of services. So far, so good. However, the strategy document completely fails to address and challenge the distortion of commissioning described earlier in this piece. And neither does it address the fact that competitive tendering is not, in most cases, the right approach. This is a singular failure by the Government, although perhaps unsurprising given the wider government agenda for competition, outsourcing and austerity.

For all that, individual local authorities and public bodies can act differently. They can be progressive. And they can build mutually beneficial relations with their local VCS.

My desire is for local authorities and other local public bodies (including CCGs) to adopt six principle-based steps to re-set their relationship with the local VCS, and to engage the latter in service provision where this is clearly in the public interest.

These six steps are:

  • talk with the local VCS and its representative bodies (such as local infrastructure bodies) to better understand what the sector can offer and on what terms it would wish to offer services, and to listen to specialist organisations about needs and the potential means of addressing them
  • involve the VCS in strategic commissioning, policy development and budget decisions
  • assume that services will be delivered in-house and that the VCS can complement such services, and can offer a voice for service users and communities to shape the services and monitor them, as well as contributing to holding the providers to account
  • deliberately work with small local community-based organisations in preference to large national charities and business corporates – whilst recognising that there can certainly be a role for some national specialist charity provision; and support local VCS infrastructure bodies which in turn can represent and support these local organisations
  • abandon competitive tendering with massively complex contract conditions when engaging the local VCS; and substitute forms of relational partnership using grants – and, where appropriate, some conditional funding-based output and outcome targets, but not cumbersome payment by results systems that require the kind of balance sheet and cash that most small VCS bodies do not have; and when a VCS organisation is delivering a service with or for the public sector, it should always be fully funded for such (which means all costs, overheads and a margin for investment and development being met by the grant/fees)
  • encourage the VCS to innovate, to take risks (especially risks that are not so easy for the public sector), to be responsive to communities and service users, and above all to speak out and to act on behalf of their beneficiaries

We need a national campaign to secure the change that I am advocating (although this should not prevent or delay local initiatives and local approaches). To that end, there is a real urgency for meaningful dialogue between the national VCS bodies and the Local Government Association (LGA), the NHS Confederation and others including the professional procurement organisations. Above all, politicians have to be persuaded to promote relational partnerships with the VCS and move on from commercially based contracting.

The national VCS infrastructure and membership bodies should be leading the national debate and they should be supporting local VCS infrastructure bodies and others to act locally.

Government has a key role to play, not least in bursting the balloon that purports that all relationships should be based on competitive tendering and that relational partnerships funded by grants are not possible under the current procurement regulations. However, this is primarily an agenda for local government and other local public sector leaders and their colleagues in the local VCS.

It would be fantastic to hear from colleagues in the local VCS across the country that their current concerns and frustrations have been addressed by the adoption of relational partnerships. I am optimistic that this will eventually be the case but we will have to work very hard to secure such change.

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