Local government is facing severe financial challenges and yet demand for services continues to rise.
No surprise then that local authorities and the public sector are turning to the voluntary and community sector (VCS) in the expectation – and sometimes desperate hope – that it will fill the gaps in provision.
But without an honest dialogue and understanding between the VCS and public sector, little will be achieved and, worse, the relationship between the two sectors could deteriorate.
The voluntary sector is rightly proud of its independence, and mostly has no wish to be subservient or beholden to the state, even when in receipt of public money.
On the other hand, there are some charities and social sector organisations that see their role solely as contractors to the public sector.
Then there are organisations that have grown a social entrepreneurial approach to meet a perceived gap in need from local communities. They see themselves as different and quite separate from the public sector.
Effective partnering by the public sector requires respect for this difference, for the values and approaches of VCS bodies, and above all, not taking the sector for granted, or expecting it to ‘bow’ to the public sector’s bidding.
Local political and public sector leaders need to recognise and respect the VCS for what it is.
Sadly, I am hearing of far too many cases of crass behaviour by some in the public sector. There are examples of local authorities and others ‘assuming’ that they can close a service, and that a VCS body will automatically pick it up.
Charities have no specific statutory, legal or moral duty to do this. VCS organisations are driven by their articles of association and charitable purpose. They must be very careful about using charitable funds to subsidise the public sector.
There are clear advantages for certain public services to be organised and delivered by VCS groups but only on terms that are financially sensible and acceptable to the organisations involved, and where the services accord with those organisations’ charitable purpose.
There is a strong case for the public sector and VCS to agree a ‘settlement’ which sets out the relationship and boundaries between the sectors; how they can and will work together and on what terms; honouring the VCS’s independence and right to campaign.
There will be some practical issues. VCS bodies will need to be supported to play a full role in the development of a local ‘settlement’. This will often require public money invested in local infrastructure bodies. My own view is that this support should come in the form of grants.
In return, the VCS, and in particular local infrastructure bodies, will need to step up to the plate. They will need to be willing to be constructive.
Surely there is no excuse for the VCS and the public sector not to be engaged in such ways.