Reach out to volunteers

By | March 2, 2017
Originally published:

Local authority leaders should foster and develop strong relations with the local voluntary and community
sector and view its member organisations and their staff, volunteers and supporters, as natural allies,
writes John Tizard.

As former vice-chair of the National Association of Voluntary Community Action, I hear too many reports about local authorities failing to connect and collaborate with voluntary community sector (VCS).

Councils often tell me the VCS does not understand or won’t do what the authority wants.

It is not for either to tell the other what to do. We need better mutual respect, collaboration and shared action or we will fail communities. Local government leaders recognise the sector has neither the wisdom nor the full range of tools needed to address the multiplicity of challenges it and its communities face. Nor does it have all the financial levers and it certainly does not have the money.

It has to work with the local VCS, businesses and the wider public sector, but I would contend that the relationship with the local VCS and civil society as a whole is fundamental to achieving community wellbeing.

The good VCS champions local communities. On occasion, this will mean VCS organisations will challenge a local authority or oppose its policies and practices and better still, propose alternatives. This is healthy and to be encouraged. Good local government leaders understand and welcome this.

These leaders instinctively recognise local government and the VCS should seek common ground and partnership while respecting each other’s differences and independence.

This is not easy. There are too many examples of growing tensions between local authorities and VCS groups. This is regretable as both need each other. Both work with and serve the same communities and share a desire to improve their wellbeing. They have complementary attributes and skills.

Effective collaboration between the two has the potential to create multiple benefits for communities and collaborating bodies. Social action, including volunteering, entrepreneurial community anchor organisations and an active VCS, can add value to communities and address social, economic and environmental problems in ways which complement the public sector.

VCS groups may be able to reach marginalised communities and individuals in ways statutory bodies cannot.

This should not be interpreted as an excuse for a local authority to step aside or cut financial support and expect the VCS to step up. The VCS can complement and augment, but not replace, the public sector. It should not use its charitable funds to subsidise this sector. When services are transferred and/or contracted, there must be mutual agreement and adequate funding.

The VCS is not a substitute or source of funding for the state at national or local level and this needs to be accepted by both sectors.

The reality is that local government no longer has the financial resources to do what is needed in any place and this is likely to be the case for many more years. This means it is unable to support the VCS as much as it once did.

Local authorities should be careful before making deep cuts to VCS support. However, the VCS should not expect to be exempt as a right from budget reduction programmes.

What should guide the political decision making within local authorities should be ‘what is best for the local community and its wellbeing’. The reality is that increasing financial support to the VCS may reduce pressure on other local authority budgets.

Best practice, leading to better outcomes, are based on a few simple approaches by local government, political and executive leaders, including:

  • Having clear, values-driven policy objectives.
  • Focusing on place-shaping and whole systems and putting outcomes before institutions or individual egos.
  • Encouraging, fostering and supporting social action and acknowledging that social action may include campaigning against local authority policy and practice.
  • Demonstrating a respect for the VCS, including community anchor organisations.
  • Recognising and respecting the right of the VCS to challenge the local authority’s policies and practices on behalf of communities and beneficiaries.
  • Having regular formal and informal, open and honest dialogue with the VCS and its representatives.
  • Using grant aid to offer financial support and not simply relying on competitive contracting.
  • Responding to community requests to take over public assets and public services in a positive and supportive manner, including financial support.
  • Supporting representative VCS-led local ‘infrastructure’ bodies and, where possible, investing in capacity building rather than competitively tendering for infrastructure.
  • Brokering opportunities for the VCS in the wider local public service economy.
  • Understanding that the VCS is about voice as much as it is about services.
  • Respecting the word ‘no’.

In turn, the VCS and its local representative bodies have to understand the challenges faced by their local authorities and the consequential hard or impossible choices local political leaders are being forced to make.

It is vital local VCS groups support and encourage local government to stand up to central government and argue for more, not less funding, greater devolution and to ensure local governance of place is democratic and accountable.

As local government seeks to shape places and mitigate the impact of central government-driven austerity, and as it seeks to achieve inclusive economic growth for its place, it must recognise this means the VCS and social action it fosters are core to any evolving strategy.

Economic growth requires investment in social capital and social growth. Local government cannot achieve or deliver all of this on its own. To succeed, it needs to partner with other authorities, including the local VCS.

Such collaboration should be at the heart of place-based politics and local government.