By Warren Escadale, Policy & Research Manager, Voluntary Sector North West

The Cabinet Office is consulting on a fund to support the voluntary and community sector’s sustainability. This is their major consultation on funding for the sector’s future in the run-in to the next general election.

However, it seems that, in the consultation’s focus on medium-sized organisations, that a lot of the Cabinet Office’s thinking has already been done. This is my quick interpretation of the assumptions that are made within the consultation:

• The emphasis on sustainable medium-sized organisations will inevitably focus on delivering public services and finding ways to subsidise delivery. Some of the ways envisioned will be innovative and rely on the best aspects of people, whilst others will be part of a race to the bottom for the sector as employers and for our collective reputation. Either way, the focus is on the sector’s relationship to its community via public services.
• The extent to which Cabinet Office funding will genuinely grow the market is questionable. It won’t create more contracts and may simply be the means to displace one provider with another. For those that might applaud the possibility of a private sector provider being replaced by one of our gang, it will be because of the leverage dragged in (and taken from elsewhere in the community). What was once seen as the sector’s “added value” has become its subsidy to the cost of public service delivery.
• DWP’s definition of vulnerability (used in the consultation) is about individuals rather than geographies and markets, and it ignores local strategies and activities. There’s a nod to equality but no understanding of places, and how places vary; no localism. That’s left to the market, which, where we’re dealing with places typified by market failure, isn’t an adequate answer. It clearly ignores the advice of the report we carried out with New Local Government Network in 2011, Realising Community Wealth, which stated: “Whitehall should do more to understand the social complexities of communities and use that knowledge to better inform policy formation and resource allocation”.
• The focus on sustainability seems misguided. As Richard Caulfield, VSNW’s Chief Executive has stated: “not all that is good is sustainable and not all that is sustainable is good”. There’s two important aspects to consider here. Firstly, should the emphasis be on creating sustainable communities, rather than sustainable charities; on creating sustainable social action, rather than sustainable public service delivery? Secondly, a sustainable market may tend to create dependence in beneficiaries rather than independence. How can this be addressed?

The big gap for us, however, is context and by that I mean: place, place, place. Cabinet Office seems a long way away from specifics, local conversations and local places. This seems like yet another top-down programme full of all the Cabinet Office’s own Open Public Service principles except for decentralisation.

The logic of the fund is that vulnerable people are best helped by high quality services, which are driven by good business models, which are driven by better competition, which is driven by contracting and this works the same everywhere. That’s just not the case and the fund looks like a one-size fits all approach chucking cash into the ether.

We think different places need different answers and, indeed, have different answers.

So what’s our response? We want to propose a different fund that is genuinely about the future strategic direction of the voluntary and community sector. On what basis? We think that in every area, there is at least one serious conversation about the future role of the sector, and we’ve been part of some of those discussions. We know they haven’t been easy conversations but they have been built on negotiation and local context. We would like to know more about those conversations and local plans for the future of the sector, in particular the more positive ones, and based on this evidence, we think that a fund could be proposed that:

1. Is more positive about the sector’s role in a place, and
2. connects to local conversations about the future role of the sector in a place.
We will use the evidence we gather to reply to the Cabinet Office’s consultation (their response deadline is 24th July). And, we will use the evidence gathered to develop a proposal for a new fund, with the aim of encapsulating an offer as well as an ask (which helps to hone concentration), for the future of the sector.

Underpinning our approach is our work on Thriving Places.

If you’d like to take part, please email at warren.escadale@vsnw.org.uk or ring me on 07753 147664. I hope to be able to contact at least one person in each area of the North West in the next few weeks and am open to conversations with public sector commissioners too. Please feel free to name names!!

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