Government lays out plans to boost voluntary sector service delivery

When home secretary David Blunkett unveiled the Treasury’s
The Role of the Voluntary and Community Sector in Service
last week, he wasn’t pulling any punches over the
enormity of the task ahead.

For the review and its 42 recommendations set out an ambitious plan
to, as Blunkett put it, “reinvent” the ability of the sector to
plan and deliver local and national services.

The three-year blueprint aims to enable the voluntary sector to
play an increased role in public service delivery. It will also
invest in the sector’s infrastructure, change funding arrangements,
and create a more stable partnership with statutory

Nearly half of the £188m grant allocated to the government’s
active community unit is to be used to implement the plans, helped
by a further £125m for the creation of the “futurebuilders”
scheme, which aims to help voluntary groups in their work with the
public sector, announced in July’s spending review.

It promises to fundamentally change the way voluntary and community
organisations work with local authorities, health trusts, learning
and skills councils, and Connexions.

To enable this to happen, the government is going to reform its
“compact on relations” with the sector and encourage compacts to be
set up locally. Established in 1998, the compact sets out codes of
good practice, but according to some it lacks teeth.

“The compact has often been ignored and the knowledge of it at
voluntary and community sector and government level hasn’t been
there,” explains a spokesperson for the National Council for
Voluntary Organisations.

“It needs more of a public commitment by the government as where it
has been implemented it has been working well,” he adds.

Trevor Hazelgrove, chairperson of the National Association of
Councils for Voluntary Service, says strengthening the compact
marks a “cultural shift” in the way the government and the sector
work together. “I believe the NACVS network should be seen as its
champions,” he adds.

The Local Government Association will be working with the active
community unit and the deputy prime minister to increase the number
of compacts.

But there are mixed views from councils on the compact, says LGA
community and voluntary sector project officer Dave Evans. “It’s
seen as a useful tool for defining the relationship between the two
sectors but the real test of it is what the relationship is like.
Where it works successfully is when it’s frank, open and mutually
beneficial,” he says.

A number of people also believe that the compact should be the
basis for an arbitration service that could adjudicate on funding
decisions between local authorities and the sector. NCVO runs a
compact advocacy service, which takes up cases of voluntary
organisations that have problems with government providing advice
and support and lodging complaints with departments.

“There’s good practice guidelines around funding arrangements and
working practices in the compact – arbitration could be a place to
go if they were breached,” says John Routledge, chief executive of
umbrella body the Urban Forum.

Evans shares this view, but says local compacts act as an arbiter
already. “If relationships are working properly it shouldn’t
require arbitration, but we’re dealing with a lot of organisations
and there’s going to be instances where it’s going to be an
appropriate way to go,” he explains.

Krishna Sarda, chief executive of the Council for Ethnic Minority
Organisations, is “dead against” the idea of an arbitration

“Both sides would invest time and money into fighting each other.
We need more transparency, and for councils to develop key
priorities and work with partners to deliver them.”

Two problem areas the government has tried to address are recouping
the core costs of delivering services and the restrictive nature of

By 2006, all government departments should ensure that the price
for contracts reflects the full cost of the service, including
overheads. The sector hopes this will finally banish the idea that
it is a cheap alternative to statutory organisations.

Sarda believes most voluntary and community organisations are so
desperate to win contracts they don’t realise the full cost of
providing services. “We need access to information and knowledge,
provided by the local authority, that reflects the true costs,” he

But John Routledge at the Urban Forum says this is na‹ve.
“It’s a great idea, but realistically if you’re commissioning
public services you have a very limited budget,” he adds.

Instead, he believes organisations should concentrate on the skills
they can provide which the statutory and private sector

Trying to move away from one-year contracts is also critical if
they are to develop continuity and experience of delivering
services, and costs are to be kept under control.

“Maybe local authorities are taking a more longer-term view than
previously. If the voluntary sector is to develop we have to tackle
the way contracts are planned,” says Evans.

The extra investment coming as a result of the review will aim to
build much needed capacity in the sector. Even some of the bigger
organisations rely heavily on grants, while infrastructure is also

Later this autumn, there is to be a review of the sector’s
infrastructure with a strategy in place by next summer. An advisory
group is going to be set up and organisations consulted at four
regional meetings.

The active community unit will be working on the consultation which
should identify where support is needed to build capacity.

“We’re going to be looking at second-tier support such as what the
leadership and management skills are like,” says a unit

Hazelgrove says voluntary and community organisations have felt the
pinch more than most from the rise in service users’

“There’s increasing demand on our services combined with a reduced
amount of money, which in turn puts pressure on our
infrastructure,” he says.

Sarda says 70 per cent of the 9,800 voluntary and community
organisations it has contact with are struggling with very old IT

“Those that deliver services on the ground often do it with poor
equipment. If the review doesn’t achieve long-lasting change then
it will compound the problem,” says Sarda.

One of the spin-offs from expanding the sector’s capacity would be
enabling smaller non-statutory organisations to get more involved
with shaping local services.

“They just want to know who to talk to when the services aren’t
working properly. They want to be involved in the planning and
evaluation of services,” says Routledge.

For many of the voluntary sector organisations working with ethnic
minority groups, a change of culture is also needed if smaller
groups are to be given a louder voice.

Sarda is critical of local strategic partnerships and believes they
must do more to engage minority groups. “The language of local
government hasn’t changed and this can sometimes prevent people
from participating in discussions. We need to create pressure on a
local level to get our voices heard,” he adds.

Ultimately, however, most agree that what will make or break the
reforms will be the willingness of local authorities to embrace

Hazelgrove says the compact provides both sides “neutral territory”
to work on. “Voluntary and community organisations need to
understand the pressures on local authorities as much as they need
to understand about our pressures,” he adds.

Others believe councils need to be given incentives to engage more
with voluntary and community organisations. “I’d like to see
central government match local funding arrangements,” Routledge
says. “Without councils’ co-operation and assistance nothing will

– The Role of the Voluntary and Community Sector in Service

Consultation meetings: 30 September, Somerset County Cricket Club,
Taunton; 9 October, Centre for Life, Newcastle; eastern England 14
October, venue to be confirmed; West Midlands 12 November, venue to
be confirmed.

Main government recommendations

  • Deputy prime minister and the active community unit to produce
    a tool kit to help councils assess voluntary sector capacity and
    strengths and weaknesses.
  • A senior official in each government department will “champion”
    the compact agreement.
  • Increase the number of local compacts and evaluate existing
  • Reduce the barriers to voluntary and community organisations in
    delivering and shaping local services.

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