How not to cut red tape for charities

By 30 June 2010

I had a sense of deja vu the other day when I read this headline in Third Sector, “Cross-departmental taskforce will seek to cut red tape for charities.”

My immediate thought was I had been transported back a few years to the Better Regulation Task Force whose report on the bureaucracy faced by charities recommended that different government bodies work together. Or that the Lead Funder Pilot, an initiative led by the Department for Work and Pensions, had finally reported. The report on the Lead Funder Pilot was never published—it found the task of co-ordinating government departments too difficult. And, as far as I am aware, the Better Regulation Task Force did not lead to better regulation, or even concrete plans for such.

As an indication of the scale of the problem of co-ordination, and for those who like this sort of thing, Recommendation 11 of the BRTF called for ten different bodies to get together, as follows.

The Task Force recommends that, in line with the Government’s drive to reduce administrative burdens, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health respectively ensure that upper tier local authorities and the Housing Corporation, the Learning and Skills Council, Jobcentre Plus and Primary Care Trusts work to measure and reduce the administrative burdens arising from contracts with the VCS [voluntary and community sector], drawing on the expertise of the Cabinet Office’s Better Regulation Executive and the existing administrative burden measurement process.

Such initiatives have laudable goals but terrible processes. The draft report of the Lead Funder Pilot was circulated in samizdat format and said, in essence, that it was all too hard. As noted, the final report was never published.

One aspect of the bureaucracy faced by charities is on monitoring and reporting to funders. It was partly in response to the myriad of conflicting or duplicative requirements, together with the failure of government to do anything practical to reduce these, that NPC had the idea to ‘turn the tables’. We ran two projects to see whether charities could define their own reports and offer these to funders. In short, could charities design sensible reports which reduced paperwork and saved money while also providing enough information for funders’ needs. One of these projects was in Scotland looking at foundation funding, the other was in England looking at statutory funding.

The results of these projects (called ‘Turning the tables’—clever, no?) were encouraging. In Scotland they have resulted in an ongoing attempt by funders to co-ordinate reporting. This is expected to bear fruit in the near future. It is being led by the estimable Evaluation Support Scotland. In England, the report led to the National Audit Office revising its guidelines on sensible monitoring. Each represents progress compared with the government inspired initiatives.

There is no doubt that much bureaucracy faced by charities can be dealt with at the level of individual government departments. Doubts emerge when government departments are asked to work together. This has been tried before, and it has failed.

If the government is serious about tackling this problem, it should look to build on the work of NPC’s ‘Turning the tables’ projects, getting charities rather than civil servants to develop and push forward solutions.