Though the stories are told by different voices, there is worrying consistency in the messages of ‘Under the radar’, NCVCCO’s survey published today of small children’s organisations, and our recent annual debate on children’s services.
In the first story, small organisations are not chosen to provide services when pitted against better-resourced organisations. They are not fit for purpose in a world where public money is fought over and “value” proven through measures chosen by commissioners in line with a distant strategy. To survive, small organisations are to form partnerships, generate income or seek funding from small, insecure sources.
The second story has the same characters, but a different plot. This tells of a flawed system of cross-agency commissioning, including competitive procurement, which is the wrong tool for improving community-based services. Our characters are in danger of being so seduced by this new tool that they make the job fit their shiny new toy, rather than realise its limitations.
These stories both contain truths. We all need to demonstrate effectiveness, and the voluntary and community sector (VCS) needs to improve its monitoring, evaluation and financial skills. But bigger is not always better and the unique, powerful impact of targeted, user-driven work is easily lost in economies of scale.
Mountains of red tape
Commissioning can stimulate positive change, and competition can secure value for money and provider diversity. But authorities tend to commission services in their own image, bounded by mountains of red tape intended to minimise risk. This does not play to smaller organisations’ strengths, nor is it an appealing prospect for groups who prioritise frontline delivery rather than complicated tender process with which even multi-million pound charities can struggle.
NCVCCO has a unique role and a broad membership, ranging from the large children’s charities to small neighbourhood groups. Like government we want a thriving children’s voluntary sector, able to improve children’s life chances, build social cohesion and give people a greater say in local services. That’s why it’s such bad news that 10% of small groups are currently threatened by closure and over a third of Children’s Fund projects face an uncertain future. The happy endings to our stories depend on government and the sector taking a long hard look at the tools and toys in the commissioning box and the unintended consequences of using them in circumstances where they can’t deliver the “value” we all want from small organisations.
The Children’s Fund