Vision for voluntary sector blurred by its failure to focus on solutions

Adequate but uninspiring. That is the verdict of many when
summing up the government’s recent consultation paper on the
voluntary and community sector (VCS) infrastructure.

The document, produced by the Home Office’s Active Community Unit
(ACU), sets out a broad vision for developing the structure of the
VCS from a national level to the grass roots.

For this, the ACU has allocated £80m out of the £93m VCS
fund announced in last year’s Treasury cross-cutting review for
development. This review underlined the lack of fundamental
building blocks in the VCS and its capacity to take on a greater
role in delivering public services, a key aspect of the
government’s wider reforms. It suggested that for the sector to
succeed, it needed to have a clearer vision as to what long-term
support the government would offer and how that would translate
into services.

However, to the disappointment of many, the consultation document
offers few concrete proposals on which to comment, instead having
the air of a questionnaire. Initially planned for release in May,
it was redrafted with many of the “bolder bits” of the original

“There isn’t a lot there to agree or disagree with,” says Keith
Kemp, deputy director of Community Matters, the organisation for
small community groups. “I was waiting for this and wanting it to
sit up and say something to me. It didn’t.”

David Evans, project officer for economic and environmental policy
at the Local Government Association, says he and many others have
been left “slightly underwhelmed” by it. But he can understand why
it is more general than the draft.

“The ACU was trying not to be too prescriptive. The VCS is very
diverse and, on the ground in local areas, there will be no two
places with the same situation,” he says.

Diane Leyland, director of development at the National Association
of Councils for Voluntary Service (NACVS) and a member of the
working group advising the ACU, says she too was disappointed. “The
vision asks more questions than it answers,” she says.

But Jane Slowey, chief executive at Birmingham Voluntary Service
Council, acknowledges that putting together something that “does
justice to the complexity of the sector is a pretty tall

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) believes
the consultation was an exercise in duplication. Earlier this year,
along with Community Matters and the NACVS, it carried out a joint
consultation of its members and came up with a “very serviceable”
model or set of principles for improving the sector’s

“The ACU paper seems to be starting from scratch again,” says an
NCVO spokesperson. “It is asking big questions about what we think
the infrastructure should look like, but we don’t know why it has
taken so long to produce that. This is an opportunity to invest in
the long-term and we need the government to get up to speed.”

The NCVO wanted a more strategic view on how to invest the
£80m, such as recommendations on the types of projects that
could be set up.

But the sector generally welcomes the distinction the paper makes
between generic and specialist infrastructure needs. The paper
recommends developing “more effective” local, regional and national
tiers of generic organisations, such as local voluntary councils,
providing support to individual groups on the ground. It also talks
of “strengthening” specialist infrastructure organisations to
better support groups working with specific client groups.

The paper also sets out a model where national and regional
organisations would receive infrastructural support in six key
areas: volunteering, ethnic minority issues, social enterprise and
VCS, community development, rural infrastructure and information
and communications technology. Kemp says these specialist areas are
far too limited and calls the lack of any mention of disabilities a
“glaring omission”. There is also no mention of this type of
support being provided to organisations working at a local

He adds:”The talk is of specialist infrastructure existing at
national and local level, but it should exist at all levels and it
does. We wanted a discussion about what should exist as a minimum
for local level infrastructure. For example, could we access
services from a specialist worker in a generalist organisation,
such as a local authority or directly from a specialist
organisation? Which is appropriate could vary locally.”

But Evans says the government’s proposals to restrict specialist
support at a national and regional level are “realistic”.

He says: “The £80m is not a lot of money spread over the whole
of England. When it is divided up it is not going to affect
everybody, although the expertise gained at national and regional
level will filter down to the local level.”

Evans also says the relationship the sector has with local
authorities needs to be reviewed so that infrastructure costs are
covered in the price voluntary and community organisations (VCOs)
are paid when delivering public services.

Leyland welcomes the idea that local government will support VCO
infrastructure, but says references in the paper to that are
“pretty weak”. She says “more effort” should be put into convincing
councils to offer support through highlighting the contribution
infrastructure makes.

One theme of the cross-cutting review was duplication of services
in the voluntary sector. The consultation document picks up on
this: “Economies of scale need to be considered and some
infrastructure services might best be provided across more than one
local authority area – for example, specialist support for

But Leyland says this argument “annoys” VCOs. “We know there is not
enough to go around but we have real needs. We probably could share
resources better but most are open to that now rather than being a
bit defensive.”

The NCVO says VCOs and government should identify the types of
services that need long-term funding arrangements.

But many fear that by having closer links with government in terms
of providing more services and having a greater reliance on it to
fund infrastructure development, the sector could be jeopardising
its much-valued independence.

“It is not all about service delivery,” says the NCVO spokesperson.
“We reject the idea that providing services is the only value the
sector can bring. We want to think about the sector as a whole and
the wider contribution it makes, and don’t want a model that just
delivers the government’s agenda.”

Leyland agrees. “We need to keep making the case that service
delivery is only part of what we do. We need to challenge the
government as well and I would like to have seen a little more
about the importance of having a strong independent sector.”

Slowey is particularly concerned that, if the sector increases its
role in delivering public services, it could lose “the thing that
makes it distinct”.

“We want good relationships with central and local government, but
also to be able to challenge them and continue to find new ways of
delivering services and supporting client groups,” she adds.

The consultation ends in December. The sector will be hoping that
the government will move swiftly to address a number of these key
issues and produce a response that begins to inspire. 

Voluntary and Community Sector Infrastructure consultation

Consultation aims

  • Support for VCOs delivered as close to the point of need as is
    economically viable.
  • Local, regional and national tiers of generic infrastructure
    organisations to provide advice and support to individual
  • Support on volunteering, ethnic minority issues, social and
    community enterprise, community development, rural needs and
  • Strengthened specialist infrastructure organisations operating
    nationally covering specific areas of service delivery such as
    child care.

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