‘There is no normal we will ever go back to’

Creatively responding to public sector cuts

By Iona Joy 23 March 2012

For the first time in 35 years, CommunityLinks is having to provide food parcels to families, hit by benefits suspension. It has had to reduce its staff by 25%, including all its volunteer coordinators, and shut many of its services and buildings. And this at a time when demand for services is going through the roof and each case presents ever more complex problems.

At the same time Barnardo’s has lost £14.4m of government income, two-thirds of which was funding designated for early intervention and family services.

NCVO’s latest survey also paints a pretty gloomy picture—almost all charities expect a worsening economic environment.

Meanwhile, Big Society seems to have dropped off the government’s radar, with no mention in the recent budget or speeches. Even funding for the evidence-based early intervention work that the government loves to talk about is being cut where local authorities are seriously strapped for cash.

So how are charities coping?

This morning NPCheld a breakfast seminar at the Guardian’s offices to discuss how charities can and are responding to these changes. Steve Bullock, the elected Mayor of Lewisham, was brave enough to join the panel and provided the realistic viewpoint of what its like to be a local authority with 25% fewer resources, some alarming demographics, and no prospect of a recovery in government funding—in fact rather the reverse.

Geraldine Blake, Community Links’ chief executive, and Jane Stacey, Director of Children’s Services at Barnardo’s, provided valuable insights from a local community organisation and big national charity. After several hours of lively discussion (the event ran over time), I took away some key points.

Firstly, that charities can be resilient. A big charity like Barnardo’s can weather the storm, albeit adjusting its core family services. It is in a good position to bid for government contracts as a prime contractor, and can enjoy the benefits of this role. The ability to form partnerships across different sectors key here.

A local community organisation like CommunityLinks is much more vulnerable. But if its leadership is able to make tough decisions, plan where possible (easier said than done given the caprice of some funding decisions), and engage with the community, the damage can be contained. For instance, when the staff at its adventure playground had to go, CommunityLinks were worried they would have to shut it, and deny 100 very deprived children the chance to play outdoors. Instead, 60 families have taken over the running of the playground so the children still have access.

Barnardo’s is increasingly using volunteers to provide some of its ‘universal’ services, and finding this investment in volunteers worthwhile. And both Barnardo’s and CommunityLinks are asking their paid workforce to be very flexible on activities and roles. With a blunt and honest ‘ask’, some of CommunityLinks’ private funders have reached deeply into their wallets and developed an engaged group funding relationship.

But while charities may be good at adapting to tough circumstances, the commissioning and funding environment is capricious and complicated, and doesn’t make it easy for them. Geographical variations in how badly charities are hit are huge. Not all local authorities are as sympathetic to the voluntary sector as Lewisham. Some local authorities are prioritising the protection of their own workforce over the benefits of externally contracting services in more effective ways.

Where local authorities have taken a knife to their own administration, this has a knock-on effect on commissioning. In reality big, simple contracts are easier to manage if you only have two people, even if lots of small, local, specialist contracts are no more expensive and deliver better outcomes. But improvements to basic procurement processes, eg, decent periods of time to bid for tenders, could give smaller charities a better chance to form bidding consortia. The question is, are local authorities imaginative enough to think like this?

There was so much more discussed during the morning, but it’s difficult to capture it all in one blog. One theme that seemed to run throughout, though, was summed up by Steve Bullock: There is no normal we will ever go back to’. The landscape has changed for the voluntary sector whether we like it or not—and charities, funders and local authorities will all have to continue to make tough decisions and try to think of creative solutions for the foreseeable future.