They want us to become like them so that they can understand us

‘The majority of procurement practice is stifled by process and bureaucracy, what appears to be text book practice in reality translates into overly complex, process focused exercises.  Such exercises demand a huge input from providers and commissioners and often miss the point of the intended outcome. Tenders now typically require 30,000 word submissions, and the majority of tendering organisations now support sizable bid teams.’

‘When I’m applying for £500 it’s like I’m applying for £500 million.’

‘Providers if presented with a problem will often identify system wide solutions for commissioners; however this approach is limited, and commissioners often commission small silo services in isolation without asking the provider sector to develop and deliver a whole system change.’

‘They say the VCSE sector is good at reaching ‘hard to reach’ groups, but then they want us to do it in exactly the way they think it should be done.’

Two of those comments came from the four largest not for profit housing and care organisations in the country, and two came from very small, grassroots organisations in the North of England, all of which were contributing to the Joint Review of the VCSE sector (http://www.voluntarysectorhealthcare.org.uk/vcse-review/) which I’m currently chairing. It’s been striking that organisations very different kinds and sizes have all been telling us some of the same things about the challenges they face.

The story of the birth, growth – and sometimes death – of a not for profit organisation is too often one which starts with a need identified by a community, and then becomes increasingly a struggle to stay true to that community and purpose, whilst having to chase funding targets set by people remote from that community. As one grassroots organisation put it, ‘They want us to become like them so that they can understand us.’ The more I’ve listened to people in the not for profit sector during this review, the more I’ve felt that the case we need to make is not for the statutory sector funding the voluntary sector, it’s for the two sectors to work together with their communities to define what is needed and what the total resource of that community – state money alongside people’s time, creativity, passion – can do to meet those needs. One participant cited the example of Bradford council doing just that with their Adult and Community Learning Budget, where the outcomes were set with the VCSE sector, who are now bidding for money in an open and fair process which feels more like an opportunity to demonstrate they are good at what they claim to be good at, rather than jumping through hoops.

There is no simple, risk-free way of spending public money on achieving complex health and care outcomes. Risk is a little like the air in a balloon: squeeze it in one place and it threatens to pop in another. Managing risk is too often confused with making a particular part of the system feel better about risk, with the least imaginative commissioners acting like the anxious manager who reduces the efficiency of their team by micro-managing them. To achieve the optimum balance of risk and efficiency will require a much closer and more respectful relationship between sectors, in which state money like the rest of the community’s resources, is seen as owned by us all, not owned by one part of the system to be given – or not – to another. As one BME charity put it:

‘Each time I meet the commissioners it’s like they’re meeting me for the first time. They haven’t taken the time to understand and respect us.’

The alternative to developing a trusting relationship in which risks can be taken and shared, is often presented as efficiency, rigour, transparency, but can actually result in waste:

  • ‘The commissioners hand us over to procurement who don’t know anything about the work.’
  • ‘As a small organisation we spend the majority of our time fundraising.’
  • ‘Hand to mouth funding wastes so much money: our staff are constantly leaving as their contracts near their end.’

Partnership working has become one of the mantras of the VCSE sector, so it’s interesting to hear organisations – especially small ones who lack the back office to develop complex contractual relationships – challenging even that idea:

  • ‘The funders changed their mind about whether the work we were doing with the lead partner (who had received their grant) was a grant or a contract. As a contract it would attract VAT which would have bankrupted us. Luckily we persuaded them to change their minds.’
  • ‘The state sector always wants us to work in partnership, regardless of whether that approach is the best one.’
  • ‘We work well with private sector organisations without the formal contracting required by state agencies.’
  • ‘We are talking less about forming partnerships now and more about solidarity between organisations and causes.’

We are still digesting the views, reports and experiences which many colleagues from the sector are generously sharing with us, and we will do so until the end of the first phase of engagement on March 2nd, but I think we are all agreed that there are some fundamental changes needed in the relationship between the statutory and not for profit sectors. Those changes are hard and they are not being made anything like consistently, but I am yet to hear anyone suggest any change which wouldn’t be achievable, if both sectors agreed it was important enough.

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