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John Tizard: Can COVID-19 be the catalyst to end marketisation and introduce relational partnerships with charities?

Wednesday July 29th, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic and the public sector’s response to it moves to a new phase, and whilst thoughts are turning to managing and surviving the pandemic for what may be many months or even years, there is much talk of a ‘new norm’.

John Tizard

John Tizard

This cliché can mean much or little, depending on who is saying it and in what context. Many commentators and others are predicting that there will be no return to the conditions that existed at the beginning of this calendar year. That said, there is a huge risk that there will be a return, or at least attempts to return, to many of the policies and practices that prevailed before the crisis, and which all too often have continued throughout.

This is particularly the case for local authority and other public sector relationships with charities, including the voluntary and community sector.

I wonder how many public bodies have deliberately and positively lifted output and outcome targets for services, which they are contracting from charities? How many have continued to make payments to allow charities to survive, even if their services have had to be stopped or curtailed?

I wonder, too, how many have taken the opportunity to check that these charities have been able to survive throughout the period, whether or not they have had to suspend and/or reduce their other activities because of drops in charitable income, the lockdown or because staff have been ill with the virus.

Have many public bodies offered financial support to enable their charity suppliers and partners to transform their business models, adapt premises and take other action to serve communities whilst being COVID-compliant? From the knowledge I have, the answer is precious few.

Those public bodies that simply regard charities and community groups as sources of cheap supply to be contracted ‘transactionally’ are least likely to have adopted a supportive approach. And it is very likely that they have treated their business sector suppliers in the same way.

If this has been the case, it is simply poor practice and truly short term.

As the COVID transition continues from rescue to recovery, now is the moment to be pressing for the third ‘R’ to dominate – that is ‘reform’.

A constructive and positive reform would be for the public sector, and specifically local government and the NHS, to radically reform their relationship with charities.

Such reform could, in my opinion and that of many I speak to and work with in charities, very beneficially include a move away from treating the sector as part of the supply chain in ways that are little different to the manner in which they contract with the private sector.

The public sector should begin to respect charities as genuine partners and as sources of expertise, and as advocates for their communities and innovators rather than contractors. They should end the practice of outsourcing public services to charities and most certainly that of expecting charities (especially small ones) to have to competitively compete through arduous and restrictive procurement processes. They should move from competitive contracting to relational partnerships.

Charities should be involved in service commissioning, service design and service monitoring – supporting and enabling service users and citizens to speak up, to challenge policy and practice, and argue for change.

The last four months have demonstrated yet again the importance of place and community, so let’s not forget that charities and the local voluntary and community sector in particular are at the very heart of place and communities. If they are simply treated as smaller versions of Serco or G4S, then their role is both compromised and marginalised to the broader detriment of the public sector and communities.

If services are supplied on behalf of the public sector, charities should always receive full costs plus margins, both for investment and to fund core costs. There should be no expectation or pressure to use charitable funds to subsidise public services – and certainly not for charities to become surrogates or substitutes for the local and/or national state.

Nor should charities be restricted by overly engineered specifications but rather encouraged to innovate, to take risks and to challenge orthodoxy.

For their part, charities must be ready to push back, challenge and when necessary to either say “no” or step away from contracts and funding opportunities that are, in effect, going to make them agents of the state.

A first step would be for public bodies (possibly led and co-ordinated by local authorities) to start a transparent dialogue with charities, local voluntary and community groups and their local representative bodies – to understand better the current state of play in the sector, explore means to support change and build resilience in the sector, and to define a new relationship based not on contracting and marketisation but on community, solidarity and mutual respect.

I hope that one of the changes that COVID will have acted as the catalyst for will be just such a radical revolution in the long-term relationship between local government – and the wider public sector – and charities.

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