Force for change?

The quantity and diversity of voluntary organisations providing health and social services are set to expand. Last month, care services minister Liam Byrne launched a task force to increase the sector’s involvement in provision. The task force brief is to break down barriers that prevent voluntary sector and not-for-profit organisations successfully bidding for health and social care work.

The task force is co-chaired by Byrne and Mencap chief executive Jo Williams. It has nine members from third sector organisations, as well as representatives from the Department of Health and Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Its first meeting took place on 16 November and it is due to run until July 2006.

So why is such a task force necessary? Williams says it is because the relationship between health and social care commissioners and service providers needs to be strengthened. “Third sector organisations need to have better access to meeting the requirements of commissioners for a whole range of services.”

A working group is looking at the barriers to effective relationships between service commissioners and the third sector and will present the task force with its interim conclusions by the end of November.

Here some of the task force members explain what they want to address and how to achieve this.

Richard Gutch, chief executive, Futurebuilders
One of the biggest barriers to the third sector’s involvement in service provision is doubt about whether it can meet the challenge. Gutch says: “Public sector purchasers can see that voluntary sector organisations are able to deliver more services but that they don’t have the capacity to expand or behave in a businesslike manner.”

He says one way to build the voluntary sector’s capacity is by awarding contracts to providers: “If they win contracts they can get a flow of income coming in and they shouldn’t have to rely on grants and loans.” Gutch argues that a “major cultural shift” is required so that the voluntary sector is seen as part of the public sector and “not as a nice extra”.

From the voluntary sector’s perspective, says Gutch, particular difficulties result from the poor purchasing practices of local authorities and primary care trusts. As some commissioners only offer one-year contracts it can be difficult to plan ahead and expand.

He urges commissioners to agree contracts that pay the voluntary sector the full price of delivering services. That way they would not have to use their grants and donations to subsidise services that the state should be providing.

Futurebuilders is a Home Office-backed 215m fund to invest in the voluntary and community sector’s ability to deliver public services by awarding loans.

Stephen Burke, chief executive, Counsel and Care
The voluntary sector has historically been underfunded and expected by statutory sector commissioners “to do more for less money”, says Counsel and Care chief executive Stephen Burke.Stephen Burke

He says people can be prejudiced about what the voluntary sector can and should do in terms of services and that perceptions need challenging. Service commissioners have opinions on what they believe the voluntary sector should provide and this can lead to uncertainty about whether voluntary agencies have the capacity to run different types of services. “It’s about viewing the voluntary sector as having a greater capacity to deliver more services.” Equally, the voluntary sector needs to think differently about what it can bring to services.

Burke says the task force should focus on identifying the barriers to effective commissioning relationships so that they can be removed. He suggests that local authority commissioners train other council employees so that they have more awareness of the issues involved in commissioning services. “Commissioning does not have the same status in social services as other disciplines but it is absolutely crucial to meeting the needs of users nationally and locally.”

Streamlining the bureaucracy involved in the commissioning of services could ease the process, he adds.

Burke wants to see high-quality advice for service users so that they can make informed choices about their services.

Virginia Beardshaw, chief executive, I CAN
The current procurement process between commissioners and the third sector is “cumbersome and not customer-focused”, according to Virginia Beardshaw, head of children’s communication charity I CAN.

She says the procedures followed by local authorities and the NHS do not focus on customer needs because commissioning skills have not been a major priority in the past.

This trend is something she wants the task force to reverse. “It is not one-size-fits-all like it was at the beginning of the welfare state.”

Echoing the views of her voluntary sector colleagues, Beardshaw argues that capacity building needs to take place in the third sector if it is to deliver more public services. And the funding has to be there to support it: “There needs to be an agreed programme of investment in the voluntary sector.”

Beardshaw also calls for voluntary agencies to be more aware of the expectations the public sector has of them and how these can be met.

On top of this she emphasises the need for statutory sector commissioners to get closer to the agencies providing their services: “At the very least if you are commissioning a couple of million quid a year from an organisation you ought to visit them.”

Elaine McHale, director of social services, Wakefield Council
As the only person on the task force representing commissioners, Elaine McHale is well aware of the barriers that they face when working with the voluntary sector. For McHale the problem is about how to work with large-scale voluntary organisations as well as with local, smaller agencies.

She says if a large voluntary organisation does not operate in a local authority’s area but wants to provide services in that locality, there can be difficulties in creating the infrastructure to support its development. “Commissioners don’t want to spend a great deal of the contractual arrangements, such as the management costs, on creating the infrastructure.”

McHale says that smaller voluntary organisations, although they may run within a locality, often do not have the support or expertise to respond quickly when a new contract has to be bid for. “The difficulty is when commissioners have short-term funding from the government and small voluntary organisations cannot react fast enough.”

On her wish-list is for the task force to address these problems by sharing good practice and for the government to simplify the regulations commissioners’ must follow when tendering.

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