At a recent conference for chief officers from community and voluntary sector - the NAVCA Chief Officers' Residential Event (CORE), I posed a challenge to the sector and in particular with regard to the future role of support and development organisations at a local and national level. I raised this because of my commitment to the local voluntary and community sector and my passionate belief in the vital contribution that voluntary and community action makes to society.
[Declaration of interest - I am a trustee and member of the board of NAVCA - the National Association of Voluntary and Community Action].
The words I used were simple - though the challenge itself is far from simple.
I asked "how should the sector evolve and change in the context of the fast-moving political, economic and social context - whilst at the same time remaining true to its principles, values, mission and independence"? The conditions faced by the sector and its beneficiaries are very different today from those a decade ago let alone a century ago. Yet the local voluntary and community sector has played a relevant and important role throughout this change because it has constantly adapted itself to retain that relevance.
I noted that whilst the sector has always been constantly evolving, it has managed to retain its unique personality and purpose. I also noted that whilst the sector has to be pragmatic, pragmatism alone is not enough, and if the sector abandons its principles, it is going to be of very little value to anybody.
However, as the public sector and local authorities in particular replace grant aid with commissioning and contracting, there is a real danger that the independence of the sector and in particular of support and development organisations, is being put at risk. I know this depends on the nature of particular contracts, but one has to ask if it is right for a local authority to determine 'which' organisation will represent local voluntary and community organisations - any more than it is right for them to specify 'what' they should do in any detail? These should be matters for the sector.
Sensible and progressive local authorities do recognise this danger, but sadly, many do not, and some are even awarding contracts for "infrastructure" support to the business sector and /or replacing support to a local voluntary sector support body with vouchers to be spent in a wider market. These developments are disturbing and are a significant threat to the voluntary and community sector.
In order to secure funding, the sector is being forced to chase for contracts even when these are not right for them. Contracts can be fine provided that organisations are able to stay true to their mission, principles, and the needs and aspirations of their beneficiaries. However, there is ultimately little value in pursuing contracts only for revenue if the conditions and/or outcomes being contracted do not fit an organisation's underlying aims and mission. And, of course, there is no sustainable future in winning contracts that are under-funded.
The voluntary and community sector "infrastructure" or "development and support" sector - often locally identified as councils of voluntary service or volunteer centres or community action associations - is being forced to evolve swiftly at national and local levels. This is inevitable - and there is no point wasting energy on resisting what must be. What is important is to change in the right way so as to be able to do the right things based on the right values.
Specifically I forecast that there will be:
- further mergers, alliances and various collaborative arrangements at the local and national levels
- a diversification of funding and alternative sources of revenue secured beyond state/public sector support
- a need for many organisations to review and change their structures and activities in order to serve their members and / or beneficiaries in a sustainable manner
- various new and complex relationships with the public and business sectors
The sector's traditional roles have included: campaigning for social justice; delivering services; building community capacity; and speaking for communities. Today, however, the community and voluntary sector also finds itself fundamental to achieving and delivering much of the national public policy agenda too, as well as local wellbeing. This agenda includes: localism; volunteering; innovative pluralism in public service delivery; personalisation; social cohesion; regeneration; ; empowering "troubled families" by transforming problems into opportunities; environmental sustainability; and much more besides.
Government and the wider public sector should recognise this role. And the sector must ensure that in addressing the agenda it does so on its terms to advantage its beneficiaries rather than to chase government funding..
The sector also finds itself picking up the consequences of public policy and conditions such as the recession, unemployment and welfare reform. However, the resources to deliver on this hugely expanded remit and increased demand remain in very short supply and the sector will have to act smartly and efficiently if it is to stand any chance of delivering effective outcomes.
The voluntary and community sector must also campaign against unjust and unfair public policy; and for alternative policies and practical solutions based on community, fairness and empowerment.
There can be no "Big Society" without strong "local societies", social justice and empowered local communities.
Sadly, some organisations will fail to adapt or survive and others may decide to close. The latter could be a positive step in certain circumstances. However, the underlying principled-based 'pragmatism' of the sector, which has been its key strength for so many years, really should ensure that the sector emerges stronger, more resilient and more effective.
It is vital that the sector itself drives these changes. This requires bold and focused leadership at both local and national levels - in tune with and having the sector's confidence.
I repeat the question I posed at the NAVCA conference: "how should the sector evolve and change in the context of the fast-moving political, economic and social context - whilst at the same time protecting its principles, values, mission and independence as it seeks to serve its communities and beneficiaries"?
I realise there are no easy answers - but we need to explore and hopefully to find them urgently.
I suggest there is need for a short and focused national debate to address this question and to strive towards a consensus around some answers. Without this, I fear that we could be buffeted around in the storms of austerity and public policy, ending up beached where we do not want to be and where we will be of little value to our communities and beneficiaries.
Let the debate commence!