Civil society (charities, voluntary and community organisations and social enterprises) can help connect government to the grass roots of society, making it more responsive and revitalising how it works – less of “doing to” and more of “working with” the people it serves. Government can bring the voluntary sector new funding, stability, and greater impact.
The voluntary sector is often “first on the scene,” spotting a social need quickly and finding the best way to meet it, tailoring its services to the very different, often multiple needs of individuals. At best, it tends to focus on the whole person and empowers them to find their own solutions. It’s often there when all else fails, and stays the course however challenging the environment. It can offer exceptional value for money, because it works at low cost, sometimes through volunteers and, unlike the private sector, it does not have to make a profit. Government funding can make all the difference to viability, stability and impact.
Government has the power and resources to turn any good idea into a much wider service or policy intervention. As it works on a huge scale, it can make a major impact.
Despite the opportunities, things do not always go smoothly and sometimes help is needed to make the connection and exchange expertise and ideas.
The sheer scale and complexity of government can make it slow to recognise and respond to fresh thinking. At the same time, it can be very hard for government to engage successfully with what can be a myriad of different organisations. The voluntary sector often struggles to find the time and resources needed to work successfully with it too – especially small, community based organisations.
Because the voluntary sector often works with the “whole person,” its concerns may straddle more than one agent of government and it can be especially hard to influence government when this is so. Democratic accountability and procurement and other rules can also make interaction with the government bureaucratic, process driven and slow moving.
Communication can diminish once the sector becomes a contractor, especially where it is in competition with the private sector. The voluntary sector can then be perceived merely as an interest group, rather than an equal partner with a genuine stake in influencing policy or designing services.
Dependence on government funding can also threaten its ability to speak truth to power. Existing commissioning and contracting processes are often flawed and can reduce the capacity of the voluntary sector to uphold their mission and values, forcing them to squeeze out quality and effective ways of doing things in the name of efficiency. This can happen where outputs are too narrowly defined and where quality is hard to measure. Cash payments can be delayed, making it hard for the voluntary sector to compete with the private sector, because of lack of access to working capital. Welcome reforms to commissioning are promised. But new forms of funding based on payment on results present new challenges.
Wider political and financial pressures can lead the Government to change course unexpectedly and frequently, reducing the space for innovation and also making it harder for the voluntary sector to plan. The pace of change can make it hard to find time to invest in new ways of working together.
The renewal of the Compact is welcome but it is important that all agencies of government follow those commitments through. The Government is putting in place a range of initiatives to help civil society deal with some of these barriers, including the Big Society Bank and the Transition Fund, and to improve the way in which government works with the sector, including the National Training Programme for Sector Commissioners and the Partnership Improvement Programme. The Government has also published guidelines on how local authorities can work better with civil society to minimise the effect of spending cuts. New forms of finance are also being developed by others to help support voluntary organisations, for example social impact bonds. A task force led by Lord Hodgson has been set up to reduce the regulatory burden on the voluntary sector.
The challenge is to overcome the barriers, ensure the free exchange of ideas and expertise, and make the most of the considerable opportunities ahead. To read more about how Civil Exchange is able to help, click here.