I had a conversation last week with a voluntary and community sector (VCS) leader during which she posed two significant questions. She challenged whether it is right for charities and VCS organisations to bid for contracted public services without considering the implications for their independence, their missions and their ability to promote the interests of their beneficiaries in the most effective manner. And secondly, she asked how the VCS and charities can avoid becoming 'agents' for the public sector if public sector commissioners in effect, control a significant proportion of their income.
These two questions are related, for they go to the heart of what charities are and what they should stand for. They are also increasingly questions that the sector should be debating, both at the level of individual organisations and collectively. My friend and I also noted that whilst these questions and related ones should be addressed urgently, we are not aware of any obvious place, forum or organisation where the debate is seriously taking place.
Neither of us believes that the sector should not bid for and manage public services. Indeed, we are both keen to see more services designed, developed and delivered by the voluntary and community sector organisations, and by partnerships between the VCS and business sectors. We recognise that the right to challenge supply can make a positive contribution in the right circumstances. And we also share the view that the public sector should and always will be the principal provider of public services.
For some charities it may be too easy to walk into contracts because that is where the money is without considering the implications
My friend and I are strongly of the view that charities including VCS organisations should only bid for public contracts when:
• this is voluntary action undertaken by the organisation because it believes that such contracts will add value and that they in turn will add value for their beneficiaries
• the contracts allow the VCS organisation to fulfil and not deviate from or dilute their strategies, mission, values and principles
• the contracts are financially and commercially sustainable; and the business case for the VCS organisation makes sense - which includes access to affordable capital
• the organisation has the necessary capacity and competency
• there is scope to innovate and to redesign services flexibly to meet user and wider community needs and choices
A critical role for many charities and VCS organisations (and one might argue it should be the case for all) is to advocate and to speak out on behalf of their beneficiaries. This may be quiet, behind the scenes discussions with the aim of persuading policy shapers, commissioners and other decision makers. Or it may involve public campaigning on policy issues, either as a single organisation or in coalition with others. This campaigning can and, at times should, involve challenging the wider macro-policy of governments if these in turn lead to harmful implications for a charity's beneficiaries and members. The sector must at all times retain the independence, ability - and above all, the will to speak out when they see policies, services and practices that they believe are wrongly conceived.
Such comment should wherever possible be seen to be both constructive and positive; and offersolutions. Charities and VCS organisations often have information, data, expertise and access to service users' experiences to be in a strong position to contribute to and influence the development of policy and practice. This has traditionally been a key role for which the sector has always been ready to meet its responsibilities. This role and contribution should be valued by policy makers and commisisoners- not feared or silenced.
However, disturbingly, I am aware of an increasing number of VCS organisations that have decided to reduce and in some cases stop their advocacy, influencing and campaigning activities for fear of upsetting their public sector commissioning bodies. Amongst some, there is a growing trend to be compliant and ready to 'respond' to the commissioners rather than trying to 'shape' what is commissioned or the policies that underpin commissioning practice. And sadly and even more worryingly, this restraint is increasingly including attitudes to national policy as much as it does towards local commissioning organisations. Indeed some contracts actually forbid public statements being made by the providers. This is simply wrong and undemocratric.
To my surprise, I recently learnt about an organisation which successfully advocates on behalf of individuals with government departments, local authorities, police, the NHS and others, whilst not having a public or indeed a private view on the Government's 'welfare reforms' or public expenditure cuts. Such a position is bizarre. However, effective individual citizen advocacy is, it will be limited in terms of what it can secure for clients if they are the victims of wider Government policies.
Why do charitable organisations that have clear mission statements to promote fearlessly the interests of their beneficiaries decide to hold back in this way? Is it because that they now see their prime role as being to bid for and deliver services for the public sector - more akin to a business organisation than a charity driven by passion and commitment? Or is it because of a fear that contracts and consequently revenue will be at risk if they speak out? Whatever the answer, I suggest that this trend is a sad state of affairs, and deeply unhealthy.
Of course, I recognise that many charities and VCS organisations do speak up for their beneficiaries and members, even when this brings them into conflict with local authorities, other public bodies and national government. And responsible politicians and commissioners will and do respect a charity's right to act and speak on behalf of its beneficiaries and recognise that this should not influence funding and contracting decisions.
However, not all politicians and officials at central and local levels are responsible, and understand and respect this right of independent thought and voice. Some charities continue to take the risk to speak their mind because it is the right thing to do - and they are to be applauded for their bravery and principles. Sadly, however, it would appear that a growing number of charities feel that they cannot take this risk. This is deeply regrettable.
National charity and VCS member organisations should be making the strongest possible case for this right of their members to speak out and act for their beneficiaries without fear of losing finance and/or contracts. This is a prime role for these national bodies. They should argue the case for grant funding too. And in addition, they should commenced a comprehensive and collaborative debate on the role of charities and the wider VCS in delivering public services in the context of the Government's policies to reduce both public expenditure and the role of the state. Ideally they would do this collectively.
A new settlement may well include a greater role for voluntary and community collectivism alongside state collectivism but let's arrive there by consent after open debate and not by stealth. Or worse, because we have not stopped to question the drive to commission and contract more and more public services from the VCS and businesses. The VCS could be irrevocably changed by such an approach and not necessarily for the good of the sector or its beneficiaries.
The conversation that I started with my friend last week needs to be taken up by others and at a national level. Urgently!