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Why the sector needs to engage with devolution

18 November 2015

What do devolution and localism offer civil society and the charity sector? That was the exam question set for the session I spoke at as part of last month’s NPC Ignites conference.

The devolution of more powers and resources to cities and local government is indeed an opportunity for the sector. Moves to making public service resources more joined up in places—rather than siloed in Whitehall—is a positive move, while getting local, bespoke decisions over areas like health, transport and skills could be more efficient and effective.  With devolution, we can envisage the collapse of some old clunky structures and approaches, prompting the creation of flexible social innovations through coproduced cross-sector enterprises. We need that. I hope for that.

However, civil society has not been a large part of the devolution dialogue. Instead, the focus has been narrowly centred on economic growth and public service reform. The devolution deals and conversations have been heavily controlled by Whitehall, which in part fetters the potential for a genuine reshaping or the unleashing of new local energy and innovation. Treasury is in control of the purse strings—there is no fiscal decentralisation. To date, this devolution is merely a context with creative potential.  It’s still early days.

Innovation vs making ends meet

Austerity hangs over devolution, and intrudes into its potential. Devolution could offer an antidote to aggressive public service austerity, but it’s straddled with cuts which have been deep, fast, and selective—hitting the poorest areas more. In areas where there is huge social need, there is very little room to experiment, to try new things. The cuts are smothering out, rather than accelerating innovative ideas.

Of course, some innovative change is already happening. In more affluent local areas there is a greater potential. In some areas there is no longer an economic recession and people are time and resource rich. There is a solid philanthropic place-based capital and we can see innovation: new levels and types of giving; reformed services utilising new activity which has been co-produced with the community and the sector; and activity which prevents rather than mends.

However, in areas where the economic and social recession endures, the signs of innovation and a new future are much weaker: where people live precarious economic lives; where time is eaten up with making ends meet; and where services are swamped by demand.

The future is about outcomes, not siloed services

Where it can, the sector needs to engage with this agenda. On the one hand, it needs to get angrier and to campaign aggressively against the injustices that it perceives, and so expand the limited prevailing narrative. On the other, it needs to be shown how it can make a difference in terms of efficiency, but most importantly effectiveness. To do this, it needs to provide a robust and compelling evidence of what works, highlight what can be scaled up, and show where activity offers financial and social returns. Charities should hold the mantle for creativity, and demonstrate that the future is not about sectors or siloed services—but outcomes. They should be a conduit between the public sector, local state and the private sector.

Above all, the sector must recognise that we are in the foothills of a journey in which there is a mountain to climb. We cannot be beguiled by the overblown rhetoric of a ‘devolution revolution’.  Whitehall remains in the driving seat and with austerity and rising social need, devolution is laden with perils. However, there is no doubt that anger, energy, imagination, and the desire to try to innovate and do new things is the fuel for this climb.

This is what charities must do. We need to get on with it.

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