Reach out for long-term relationships

By | January 11, 2018
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Originally published: https://www.themj.co.uk

When I speak to leaders and activists from the local voluntary and community sector (VCS), I am increasingly struck by the similarity of questions and concerns they are raising. Many of them relate to local government and the localist agenda.Of course, there are the inevitable (and justified) concerns about the lack of sufficient funding and financial support and the quality of commissioning and procurement. These two sets of issues are not new and they need to be addressed. For me, however, dig deeper and five core questions keep arising which are both more interesting and more fundamental.

• Why does the local authority seem to regard our role in the VCS as being merely to provide services, either through public sector contracts or as substitutes for public sector provision?

• How can we better engage local government and the wider public sector to influence policy and budget allocations, contribute to the inclusive growth agenda and speak on behalf of our beneficiaries and communities?

• Will local government understand the value of, and consequently use, grant aid to support local VCS and social action?

• When will the VCS’s critical contribution to ‘double devolution’ be recognised?

• Where does ‘power and influence’ lie today – is it with central government, local government, the local enterprise partnership, other public sector bodies or even businesses?These questions should be of intense interest and concern to council leaders because they are fundamental to local social and economic wellbeing, which is reliant on contributions from the public sector, the VCS and local businesses.This being the case, it seems council leaders should value and want to seek close relationships with their local VCS.

After all, they are from the same communities, represent and serve the same communities and in a period of constrained resources, need to galvanise their combined strengths.The starting point must be mutual understanding and respect. This requires both sectors to invest some time and commit to developing long-term relationships. This is never going to be easy, especially at a time of austerity and cuts, but the prize makes it worth pursuing.

Councillors, officers and the VCS have to be ready to listen to each other and be ready to change both attitudes and practices.Traditionally, the relationship between the two has varied from place to place. Sometimes confused, and even contradictory, this is despite many councillors being trustees of local VCS groups and charities, working with them at council and community/ward levels and referring residents to them for support, advice and services. There is still a tendency to be wary of recognising VCS groups as a legitimate voice of communities and even less so of neighbourhoods. For all of my critique above, there are in fact examples of councils and councillors who have good productive relationships with the local VCS. That said, there is a clear need to build a shared understanding of good practice which could start with both the VCS and councils making a renewed commitment to understand each other better, including their values, objectives, constraints and governance. VCS has often benefited from grant funding, although sometimes (and incorrectly) coming to expect this as an automatic, ‘no strings’ entitlement, when the reality is that even in days of plenty, this mindset was both wrong and arrogant. Local government has an obligation to use its resources for public benefit, and when resources are scarcer, must be even more prudent and targeted with its money. The VCS must acknowledge this and demonstrate by words, deeds and attitude that it respects this reality.

While the local VCS can be representative of communities it will not always be so. It can be a source of and catalyst for participatory activism, but it is not a substitute for democratic local government accountable to the local electorate. When councils and the local VCS work well together local democracy can be enhanced. Public service provision is a core activity for many VCS organisations but not all. Some have elected to provide advice, advocacy and a community voice. Some provide services only and some have a comprehensive portfolio of activities. Some will wish to contract with the public sector, some to provide services financed by grant and some will deliver services which receive no public funding. Most local VCS groups will have been established to meet a local need and/or to campaign for change to policy and services. For their part, councils must understand and accept the VCS is about more than service delivery and more than ‘contracted’ public service delivery. Indeed, the VCS has no aspiration to be an ‘agent of the state’ nor a shadow of a business sector corporate, competing for outsourced contracts. Council/VCS relationships must be about more than commissioning, procurement and contracting, and when councils coerce VCS organisations in this direction, they are missing a huge opportunity and denying local communities something very special. The bigger prize is for councils and the VCS to work together on place-shaping. Most councils rightly take their placeshaping roles seriously and insightful local government leaders know the VCS can complement and contribute to this. VCS groups can: speak for and to communities, acting as both a two-way conduit and interpreter of opinions, policies and programmes; advise on the development and implementation of policy; challenge if these are disadvantageous or harmful to communities and beneficiaries and can facilitate and champion social action, which is critical to resilient communities and places. Additionally, the inclusive growth agenda will only succeed when there is investment in the social capital of places and not solely in hard infrastructure and businesses. Resilient and growing local economies require resilient communities so investment in the VCS should accompany – and even precede – investment in construction projects and business.

To progress this approach, councils should fund the development of VCS capacity through grant aid to local VCS infrastructure bodies. From years of observation, both as a former council leader and subsequently as an activist in the VCS, that the most effective of these infrastructure bodies are those which the VCS itself creates, owns and controls and which are accountable to the VCS – not the council. Accordingly, councils must be willing to not to seek control of the VCS and not to give the impression they might be seeking to take such control. In those places where relations are not as good as they should be, a good starting point is for council leaders to start a dialogue with the VCS about the five questions above. If there can be some discussion on how to address these, there can be no better foundation on which to build long-term, sustainable and productive relations.