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John Tizard: You don’t build partnerships through competitive tendering

Thursday April 11th, 2019

The voluntary and community sector, especially small local VCS groups, can offer so much – and ‘partnership’ between a vibrant and confident local voluntary and community sector and the public sector, especially local government but also the NHS and police, is critical to securing community wellbeing.

John Tizard

John Tizard

In any ‘place’ the VCS will not be homogeneous, any more than it will be the same between ‘places’. Rather, the VCS invariably reflects local circumstances. And at its best, its contribution is about much more than merely ‘contracting’ with the public sector to run public services.

The VCS has the capacity to articulate the voices of ‘communities of place’ and ‘communities of interest’. It can challenge the public sector’s policies and services. It can promote alternative policies and practices that will benefit local communities. It can provide services in response to need and, when the conditions are right, it can deliver public services on behalf of the public sector. Above all, however, it can act as an advocate for individuals and communities.

These contributions are all important – but they are not contradictory. The VCS has traditionally adopted multi-layered approaches. For example, look at the many VCS bodies that are stepping up to meet needs created by the growth in food poverty by managing food banks, whilst at the same time campaigning against the causes of food poverty. This is the sector at its best.

In other words, the role of the VCS in contributing to place-shaping and democratic processes should never be underplayed or ignored. The public sector, especially local government, should not only recognise these contributions but also value them. This means promoting the VCS’s role in their respective ‘places’; respecting its right to speak up and to advocate, even when this may bring it into conflict with council political administrations or officials; and supporting the sector financially and in other ways.

Local authorities really should consider, in a meaningful fashion, how they can include the local VCS in policy development, strategic budgeting and strategic commissioning. And by that, I mean not treating the VCS in the same way that they tend to treat major corporates, which may compete/bid for major public service contracts.

In order to build relations with the local VCS and co-ordinate the relationship between the VCS and local authorities, the latter should instead seriously consider how they can support local VCS infrastructure bodies such as councils of voluntary services (CVS – though these bodies may have other names in different places). Such infrastructure bodies provide support and development to the local VCS (particularly small charities and community groups); provide a collective strategic voice; and curate data and information about local communities, which can be extremely valuable to the public sector.

Local VCS infrastructure bodies should, if properly constituted, be representative of the local VCS and fully accountable to it. So how can a local authority choose which body will fulfil this role? Unfortunately, too many local authorities seem to think that this is what they themselves should do. And bizarrely, too many seem to believe that there is neither a role for any local VCS infrastructure nor any need for such bodies to be supported. This is terribly short-sighted, self-defeating and without doubt not in the interests of any local authority or its citizens. In truth, both benefit from an effective VCS.

Too often local authorities and the wider public sector have become so obsessed with competitive tendering that they only see the VCS as contractors or potential contractors and assume that they can only support the sector (including local VCS infrastructure bodies) via a tendering process and through constrictive contracts.

Given my description above of the role that the sector and local infrastructure bodies play, it should surely be obvious to any rational and community-focused local government leader that they should not channel their support and relationships with the VCS and its infrastructure bodies simply through a competitive contracting process.

Rather, relationships should be built on the basis of trust, respect and a shared commitment to local wellbeing. It follows that such relationships are best underpinned by a relational partnership approach.

For small charities and community groups, competitive tendering is utterly disproportionate and overwhelming given their relative size and capacity. And relational partnerships work best for them too. Local authorities should return to more commonly using grants (and thereby reducing transactional costs), as well as being more conducive to building sustainable local VCS capacity.

There are very similar arguments for the NHS, specifically CCGs, as well as Police and Crime Commissioners supporting local VCS infrastructure bodies. Indeed, I urge all locally placed public sector bodies to review their relations with and support to their local VCS, and recognise the value of local VCS infrastructure.

In particular, I urge local government to ‘value’ the local VCS and local VCS infrastructure bodies as partners and consequently to move on from competitive tendering towards partnership when seeking to support the VCS. I also urge local government to use its influence and reach agreement with the wider locally based public sector that it will do the same – partnership and competitive tendering have contradictory origins and ethos, and it is the former that is by far the more effective.

Relational partnerships form the best foundation for sustainable partnerships based on trust, respect and shared commitment to place and communities.

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