Local authorities struggling with cuts and what feels like everlasting austerity have been looking at ways to husband resources and still deliver for their citizens. It isn’t easy.

Back offices have been stripped out, non-essential services have gone. Nice to have but hard-to-defend posts are no more.

One key way forward has been putting the services that councils are still able to pay for into ever bigger contracts and them putting them out to the market. Undoubtedly, being more focused on this area has led to savings for councils, just as it has at national level.

In many places this has not, at least obviously, been at the expense of quality. In others, this is less clear, as the Work Programme illustrates. Some councils see the role of the third or voluntary sector as being good organisations to bid for whatever they are outsourcing or commissioning for.

They prefer, if the price is right, to use non-profit organisations as they feel safer that they are getting the right ethos from the provider and do not see some of the payments siphoned off to shareholders. Even where the charity sector finds it hard to bid for the main contract, they often pop up as sub-contractors for the ‘for-profit’ prime.

Is using the charity sector and your local voluntary groups in this way the best thing to do?

At a recent roundtable NPC held with voluntary and local government folk, we tried to boil down what local councils and other parts of the public sector should be trying to get out of the VCS. Of course, they are often the best providers of services when won in competitive tender, but their real added value is slightly different.

  • First, the voluntary sector usually has a decent feel for what users and communities want. They can feed this into councils’ decision-making and that ability should be used. But they can also help shape commissioning and contracts to ensure that they really will work for citizens—whoever goes on to win the contract when put out to tender. They can also feed back how things are going and should therefore be a vital part of an often neglected part of the procurement industry, which is performance management of a contract post-letting.
  • Second, the voluntary sector is good at raising issues with councils, just as it is with the national government. This advocacy role is not always comfortable for politicians or council officers, and community and voluntary groups can be unrepresentative and excessively single-issue based. But, this is a vital part of a healthy democracy and helps make sure that the voices of the less powerful are heard where they should be.
  • Third, the voluntary sector helps create that illusive thing called social capital—the glue that binds an area and community together and contributes to economic and social well-being and cohesion. As I have recently written in the RSA journal, much of the financial resource that allows them do that comes from the way money flowed through the system in the past. Much of that ‘slack’ has now gone. Councils need to find ways to keep this vital role going when cash is very scarce.
  • Fourth, community groups and others can add their ability to utilise local assets—those of local people as much as physical assets. Sometimes they are needed to run community centres and libraries that the council can no longer afford. At other times, it is mobilisation of volunteers to help with isolation, local rural transport or to support children in trouble. As Surrey CC chief executive officer, David McNulty, said at a local Voluntary Action event in South West Surrey recently, it is not so much what the council can do for you—not least as it has so many more cuts to make—it is how the council needs you to work with it to help the community work.

In the first flushes of austerity, councils and other parts of the public sector did what they could to adjust fast, but often without much of a strategy.

With resources unlikely to return to anything like the old days, they need to think hard about how to work with the local and national voluntary and charity sector to achieve their goals as community leaders.

This article was originally published by The MJ: ‘Unlock your thinking time’

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