Five things the government could do to really support small charities

30930962770_a68e502cd6_zThe government responded to new research highlighting how ‘broken commissioning threatens the survival of small charities’ with a programme of support to help small and medium charities to successfully bid to deliver public services. Others will have their own views….but suffice to say I was underwhelmed by their approach.

But if incubators and Crown Representatives aren’t the answer, how could the government respond meaningfully and effectively to the challenges faced by vast swathes of the not for profit sector?

Here I suggest five ways the government could offer genuine support to small and medium sized charities:

1. Stop believing that ‘business’ is inherently better than ‘charity’

Charities and not for profits must be entrepreneurial to thrive, but to suggest that aping big business is the way to do this is misguided and damaging. ‘Big Business’ remember brought us delights such as Enron, the global banking crisis, PFI and countless other examples of how not to do things. There are economies of scale that are helpful to achieve, but charity performs a hugely important – and socially distinct – purpose to commercial enterprise. Social enterprises are a hugely important part of the social economy (particularly those that are genuinely enterprising and actually deliver social impact) but not every charity ought to be a social enterprise.

We should not judge charities by the business acumen and financial efficiency – though that’s not to say strong financial management and entrepreneurialism are unimportant. Charity must deliver social benefit. They should be ‘charity-like’.


2. Make ‘The Grant Making Tango’ compulsory reading for commissioners and funders

Written in 2004 and as compelling today as it was then. Julia Unwin sets out the need for funders to be clearer about what impact they are seeking from their funds; maintaining activities or services, building organisations or systems change. She also makes the case for different funding styles to support this; giving, shopping and investing.

Too many funders and commissioners are unclear about the approach they are taking and precisely what impact they want to have. Understanding the differences and being clear about intent will inform the way charities (and others) are invited to bid and reduce the amount of time wasted trying to second guess vague specifications and guidelines.


3. Start doing more ‘investing’ – let charities find solutions to problems

If commissioners knew best how to solve a particular social challenge then I’d have thought they’d be best placed to deliver that solution or service. The fact is that smaller charities and community groups are experts in their fields. They are often closer to their beneficiaries (many of them run by their beneficiaries – or at the least directed by them) and well equipped to identify the best ways to tackle those challenges. Commissioners are paying for someone better placed then them to deliver the solution. Why then should we try to impose the most appropriate way to deliver the solution?

Invest in the groups and organisations that are best equipped to find solutions and then trust them to get on with it. Provide support, challenge, question, encourage and work with them to ensure they have every chance of success…but let them do what they do best – support people and causes that need their help.


4. Don’t allow grants to be seen as the commissioners’ Cinderella

For too long grants have been seen as the poor relation of contracts. The Orwellian mantra of ‘contracts good, grants bad’ has eroded confidence in grant-making as a valid mechanism for supporting the delivery of social outcomes. It must stop. Grants are often more effective, more efficient and less bureaucratic than the dead hand of public sector procurement.

The real villains here are inappropriate use and poor practice – whether in grant-making or in procurement. Done poorly grant-making is expensive, burdensome and unlikely to deliver real impact to beneficiaries and procurement is no different. Let’s stop judging a particular approach and start appraising the way it’s done. Good grants and good contracts.


5. End austerity – fund public services adequately and start investing in prevention

The elephant in the room here is the fact that our public services are chronically underfunded and charities are being asked to pick up the pieces. Local government funding has been cut savagely over recent years and is only getting worse. Take Adult Social Care for example, one of the biggest costs in our Welfare State. It may need reform and there are plenty of things that can be done to improve the way we deliver it, but there is simply not enough money to meet rising demand. There’s no realistic prospect of investing properly in preventative measures when councils are struggling to merely meet their statutory duties. If the government wanted to alleviate the pressure on small charities, it should fund public services properly and not expect the care of millions of vulnerable people to be provided ‘on the cheap’ by someone else.


I’m not so naïve to believe that these five things on their own would fix the ‘commissioning crisis’. Nor would they mean an end to the challenges faced by small and medium sized charities. In fact it’s my view that the constant hand-to-mouth existence faced by many small charities is what gives them their cutting edge and drives innovation and improvement. However the government are serious about wanting to offer support to these organisations, they may want to consider these actions. And….the bit I know they’ll really love, they could do numbers 1-4 without it even costing them any more money.


Small charities in crisis but fear not…here comes the government

commissioning20report20coverThe excellent ‘Commissioning in Crisis’ report from the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales recently set out how ‘broken commissioning threatens the survival of small charities’. And just a week later the Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson, announced a programme to help get small charities into the public service supply chain.

Excellent – responsive government, sensitive to the needs of small charities and acting on available evidence in a decisive and timely fashion, right?


Or perhaps it’s merely encouraging more small not for profits down the road of wasted hours, time and thankless bureaucracy in the forlorn hope of winning contracts?

To help me make up my mind (and mindful of the political dimensions of interpreting evidence), I thought I’d start by taking a look at what Commissioning in Crisis says.

Much of the report’s content will not come as much surprise to anyone who has worked for or with small charities (or for that matter a SME). Phrases like unacceptable hoops, poor scrutiny and irrelevant requirements are sadly all too familiar to those who have ventured bravely down the public service procurement path. It is worth mentioning at this stage that this type of bureaucratic time-wasting is not the preserve solely of government. At their worst charitable trusts and foundations ae also guilty of poor processes and systems that place huge unnecessary burdens on applicants. It is by no-means widespread and substantial effort to improving things has been made over the past 20 years or so….but not to the extent that charitable grant-makers can start pointing out the inadequacy of government without impunity.

My perspective here may not be unique, but I have worked as a grant-maker; I have developed commissioning processes in local government and I have applied for numerous grants and public service contracts within small charities. In my experience, public sector procurement is far far worse than almost all charitable grant-makers application processes.

What is not new, but has now reached epidemic proportions, is the shift away from grants towards contracts for no other reason than the new public management orthodoxy says grants are bad and contracts are more efficient. It is a widely held view and one that I have absolutely no sympathy for. The evidence to justify this politically-motivated approach is noticeable only by its complete absence. I am not for one minute suggesting that contracts are inappropriate in some circumstances, what I am saying is that they are used crudely and inappropriately far too often.

The solution offered by the Minister is – as Gethyn Williams pointed out – very reminiscent of government policy circa 2005…but without the money to back it up. We have a Public Service Incubator, a commissioning kitemark and a voluntary, community and social enterprise crown representative.

I had never heard of a ‘crown representative’ before but it turns out it’s something that was introduced in 2011 in order to ‘help the government to act as a single customer.’ Strategic suppliers – which appears to mean big business – have Crown Representatives. The likes of Serco, BAE Systems, Tata Steel and Lockheed Martin have named individuals on a document on the Cabinet Office website. There’s also one for the banking industry, one for the energy industry and one for SME sector.

Clearly someone feels that’s a model which is working so well it ought to be replicated for the not for profit sector. I wonder whether the Federation of Small Businesses would care to comment on the efficacy of the approach?

In 2005 we didn’t have Public Service Incubators we had a national training programme through the ‘Partnership in Public Services’ programme.

An article in Third Sector magazine from 2006 says this:

The Government has pledged to make procurement processes fairer and more proportionate by drawing up a set of standard contracts for public bodies contracting services from the voluntary sector.

Sound familiar?

The fact is that huge budget cuts and increasing demand on public services has made things far worse, not better, in a great many instances.

Smaller charities may well be facing a crisis; indeed it is one that has been rumbling on since 2008/9. The belief that the solution is to spend time learning to navigate the labyrinth of public sector procurement processes and compete for an ever-diminishing pot is misguided. Surely the solution is to change the system rather than suggest everyone learn how to play by the broken rules of commissioning?

I’m not suggesting that’s an easy task for central government or local government. But I’d like to think that if we put our minds to it, we could come up with a better solution than a commissioning kitemark and crown representative. And maybe it involves small charities and community groups getting on with delivering social benefit without necessarily delivering public services.

5 animal traits to help hold politicians to account

Barnet Council has had a campaign running for a couple of years now to achieve 50% recycling of waste by 2016. It was launched on the back of considerable investment and a major revamp of the recycling and waste service – and a big piece of consultancy work for a couple of firms.

Laudable ambition. Challenging target. Important issue.

So, as we enter the last few days of 2016 you might have expected to hear how it was going. Has the council achieved its target? Did all the investment deliver value for money?

I don’t know. I’ve trawled Barnet’s website, I’ve tweeted them, I’ve looked through their suggested hashtag (#barnetrecycling – which threw up some interesting results but nothing on progress), I’ve even tried to navigate the London Data Store to find out.

I only single out Barnet because:

  1. I live in the Borough and so I have a ‘citizen’s-eye-view’, and;
  2. They have emblazoned their recycling lorries with the 50% target – like a sort of mobile ‘EdStone’ – to remind me.

I have no idea whether they’ve met their target (though I have a suspicion that their silence might speak volumes!). But I would like them to account for their actions by being clear and open about what has happened. Thinking about how I might go about that, it occurred to me that maybe we can learn a thing of two from the animal kingdom to help us go about it.

zooHere are my five animal traits that can help us better hold our politicians to account:

  1. The memory of an elephant – we must remember those promises and be able to recall them some time later if we’re going to hold politicians to account. There are often good reasons why things don’t happen the way we expect – but we need honesty in how we report progress. But if we don’t remember, we’ve got no chance of being able to ask questions about how things have gone.
  2. A dog with a bone – tenacity is a mainstay of any activist (and I suppose I would describe any citizen seeking to hold politicians to account an ‘activist’). This is the trait that is possibly most likely to infuriate officers and politicians but also serves an important purpose. Single-mindedness, fixating on an issue and going after it like a dog with a bone is often the difference between successful campaigning and being easily forgotten.
  3. The skin of a rhino – it can be tough questioning politicians and political institutions (like councils). Power is unequal and challenging power can be uncomfortable. It’s important to have sufficient resilience to withstand criticism, ridicule and attack if you’re going to hold politicians to account. When those with power feel attacked their reaction is often to attack right back – but it’s usually not personal, however much it might feel like it is.
  4. A bird’s eye view – being able to see things strategically, from upon high, is hugely helpful in order to identify the right ‘buttons to press’ and to develop tactics that are likely to succeed. Effective accountability requires the ability to switch between microscopic detail and big-picture thinking in the blink of an eye.
  5. The roar of a lion – it’s all very well having the personal fortitude and ability to understand issues and ask the right questions, but you have to make your voice heard. Effective communications are crucial – okay so it’s not always necessary to roar, sometimes a quiet word can be just as effective. What matters is having a clear and compelling message and getting your point across.

They say politics is a zoo… so maybe we need to learn from the animal kingdom if we want to ensure our politicians deliver on their promises and are held to account for their actions.

How a simple letter got people online – saving Essex Council £20,000 a year

Essex County Council, like most other councils, spend a lot of money processing paper. Some of that goes on administering Blue Badge permits that allow disabled drivers to park closer to where they’re going. With the continued pressure on public service budgets, it’s hardly surprising that they should want to look at whether they can reduce their costs and make the process cheaper and more efficient. An obvious way to do this is to get people to renew their permits (and do an array of other things) online rather than more expensive face-to-face or paper based administration.

So we set out to help them test, through a Randomised Controlled Trial, whether small changes to the Blue Badge renewal process could encourage channel shift – that is moving people from one channel (paper/face-to-face) to another (online).

The results showed it worked – passing standard tests of statistical significance.

Just by making small changes to the renewal letter that goes out to Blue Badge holders we managed to reduce the numbers of people that renewed by post by almost 20% (8.6 percentage points).  And because we used an RCT to test it, we can be confident that the difference can be attributed to the changes we made to the letter.

Blue Badge renewal by type

Blue Badge renewal by type

By simplifying the letter – stripping away anything we didn’t feel was absolutely necessary to include and making it clear to the reader precisely what they had to do – we made it more likely that people used the online renewal process.

Martha Lane-Fox, in her 2010 role as Digital Champion, looked at the costs (and savings) of government conducting business online, rather than face-to-face and paper. She estimated that the public sector would save £12 for every transaction conducted online rather than by post.

For Essex that figure would mean that this small change to the renewal letter will save them around £20,000 a year. Of course set against cuts of £50m this year it’s a drop in the ocean. But if every service or process were able to find similar efficiencies for a fraction of the costs of implementing them it would soon add up.

Simplification wasn’t the only effective way we found of reducing paper renewals. We also found that by telling people that renewing online saved the Council money and helped protect frontline services also encouraged channel shift. This small change in the renewal letter reduced paper renewals by over 18% (7.7 percentage points).

The RCT gave the Council strong evidence of what works, enabling them to adopt the simplified letter as their new standard renewal letter.  Since they did so, only 5 percent of renewals are done by post, with over half of all renewals now being done online (the remainder are done over the phone).

Post-trial renewals by type

Post-trial renewals by type

The trial has helped the Council move toward online renewals for blue badges and we hope it can act as a model for the more general transformation of services across the council.

Small things can make a big difference.

Read the full report on our online Blue Badge renewal trial.

We shouldn’t put RCTs in the ‘too hard to be bothered with’ box

The excellent article by Sally Cupitt – Head of NCVO Charities Evaluation Services – on Randomised Controlled Trials and their use within the voluntary and community sector provides not just an informed explanation of what they are and how they work, but also a critique of their application. I welcome any contribution that highlights the use of experimental methods – as a paid up member of the experimentalist club – particularly from someone as well informed and experienced as Sally.


My experience of Randomised Controlled Trials at Lambeth Council and elsewhere at  is similar to the picture painted in the article – that RCTs are not generally understood, only used very occasionally by not for profit organisations (and indeed by local government and the public sector) though there is growing interest. The list of seven challenges that using RCTs poses to the voluntary sector is certainly very comprehensive and I am not going to argue (much) that they are not valid concerns.

Who can say that scale and timescale, technical skills, ethical issues, generalisation and the need for other evaluation methods aren’t real considerations?

But I look at that list and can’t help thinking that they could be applied to pretty much any decent and reliable evaluation method you might consider using. Of course different methods have their strengths and weaknesses and some will require more technical skill, or pose more challenges of generalisation…but they are all likely to be there with any method we might consider using. That is the nature of evaluation – there is not a single method or approach that will do everything you need all of the time (whatever some of the advocates of these approaches might tell you!).

One thing that Sally and I certainly agree on is that RCTs are not suitable for evaluating every programme or initiative. Not everything can be measured through and RCT and sometimes even if you could, you shouldn’t – the selection of evaluation methods needs to be proportionate to the scale and nature of the programme. In fact that reminds me of discussions Sally and I had about 15 years ago when she was helping me and my team to develop an approach to evaluating influencing policy-making. We realised that we could design a perfect system for evaluating the outcomes we wanted to measure, but only if we spent all our time and all our money on doing it. Evaluation needs to be proportionate. So, like all evaluation methods, we need to use RCTs selectively and appropriately.

I find a lot of people who think that RCTs have to be massively complicated, prohibitively expensive and are only used by moral-lacking purveyors of the ‘dark arts’ of manipulation. And of course there are many (mostly private sector) firms that use trials to sell things they don’t want to unsuspecting people….or something like that. However I think we need to bust a few myths about RCTs here – at least based on my experience.

Whilst I accept that some RCTs are terribly expensive and horribly complicated, they don’t have to be. I know this from having run successful RCTs at a number of local authorities. It comes down to using the method appropriately.

We’ve found it most suitable to test small changes to communications and messaging – to see which variation works best. That is very different to evaluating whole programmes where you have to track people over long periods of time to see how they behave. That way lies complexity and expense. But if we want people to respond in particular ways – whether it’s signing up to take part in an initiative, or to respond to a specific invitation or request in a particular way (behaviour change) then that can work.

I would go so far to say that with ever advancing technology we now have the opportunity to run RCTs at a lower cost and more simply than many other evaluation methods (after a bit of expense on the initial set up).

Scale is an issue – and clearly local authorities have a natural advantage over most charities and community groups in the size of their operation (particularly with universal services). But I see this as an opportunity to encourage collaboration, sharing and ultimately drive up standards across the VCS, by working together to evaluate interventions by using RCTs (that also helps to address the issues around generalisation).

Another concern people often express when I talk to them about using RCTs is that the process is depriving people of something. Of course that is true – but we do that all the time when we pilot new approaches, without batting an eyelid. How is it different? If we knew something would work we would do it and not run pilots or prototype new approaches. We do them because we don’t know but we want to find out – and by using an RCT we can be more confident that the results we observe are down to our actions, not because of any other factors that might make the pilot area or group different to another group.

RCTs do require a degree of technical expertise, that’s true, but it doesn’t mean needing to do a Masters or a PhD in experimental methods (though if you want to go, I can recommend courses that Professor Peter John runs at UCL). There’s a lot you can learn from reading the resources out there, or support that is available. And inevitably, as the use of RCTs grows, so too will the support available to run them – and I’m very happy to share my experience with anyone who’s interested!

Just because they are new and we have to learn how to use them appropriately – much like any other innovation – doesn’t mean we should write them off as being too difficult to bother with. Aiming high and believing things are possible however improbable they might seem is a hallmark of the VCS and one which can be applied to evaluation as much as anything else.

Welcome and unwelcome disruption

In a previous post I wrote about the experience of being a ‘professional outsider’ with a role to creatively and positively disrupt normal ways of working. This sparked a really interesting discussion on twitter with Mark Brown and Roxanne Persaud (both of whom I would say are kindred spirits in the disruption stakes). Mark made the point that the reaction that disruptors get to their suggestions is dependent on (in his words) ‘which gate you enter through’.

This got me thinking about the differences between being an invited outsider and an uninvited one.

I realise that at different times in my career the ideas I have suggested have been received very differently. Sometimes I know I’ve been seen as a pain in the neck (as anyone who knows me will attest) but on other occasions the response has been far more positive. What makes the difference? Is it all about the ideas or are there other factors at play?

It’s my firm view – and one that I am grateful to Mark for articulating and reminding me of – that the content (what is being suggested) is only part of the picture in determining how it is received and whether or not it is acted on. Though I’ve not conducted a randomised controlled trial on this to test my theory, I think that who the message comes from and their perceived status has a significant bearing on how that message is received.

I’ve worked with countless community activists that have had to ‘force’ their way in to discussions within organisations that – to a greater or lesser extent – see them as trouble makers and unwelcome disruptions. The questions they ask and the ideas they put forward are typically seen as difficult and more often than not strenuous efforts are made to marginalise them and their thinking. In my (sometimes) more privileged role as an ‘invited disruptor’, my interjections are – on the whole – regarded as equally awkward but less easy to dismiss. The disruption is not always welcome, but it is expected. This role is legitimised in a way that the community activist’s may not be, despite the fact that there’s no fundamental difference in what might be said.

I do think that perhaps sometimes there is a knowledge of an organisation, the context and – crucially – the language in which the messages are couched, that makes it easier for invited disruptors to be heard. One learns when and how to ‘push back’ against resistance. But there’s also an important learning point for organisations to think more carefully about how they respond to disruption. This is particularly pertinent with the growing expectations that user or community involvement matters to the quality of decision-making and delivery of outcomes.

If organisations are unable to respond in constructive ways to the disruption of outsiders the risks are that at very people they say they want to involve will quickly become disillusioned and walk away. It’s not easy though as a lack of institutional knowledge and access to some of the issues that may not have been disclosed makes it too easy to dismiss valid questions and suggestions.

Nonetheless if we fail to regard ‘uninvited disruption’ in an equitable way to ‘invited disruption’ then it will become increasingly difficult to achieve some of the – hopefully – common goals that are shared by activists and organisations.