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?

Maybe.

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.

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A study of predicting welfare scroungers and providing targeted support to vulnerable people

“Test predicts which children will grow up to be drain on society – when they are just three years old” screamed the headline in the Telegraph this week. Posting the article on Facebook sparked a flurry of fascinating discussion, ranging from eugenics and normalisation through to private education and Philip Larkin. Some of it rather took me by surprise…

Whereas I had, perhaps naively, assumed that the knowledge of how we could better target resources on preventative interventions to those who most need support, others saw this as a sinister development.

I realised from the outset that the Telegraph had, as is their way, taken a particularly unpleasant slant on the research to blame these people in a barely disguised throwback to the Victorian notion of the ‘undeserving poor’. How else can one explain opinions (rather misleadingly presented as ‘news’) like this:

“A simple test at the age of three can determine whether children will grow up to be a burden on society, needing excessive welfare, ending up in jail or becoming obese.”

Hmmmmm

I had not really considered that this evidence, in the wrong hands (or in the ‘wrong minds’) might provide the justification for writing off children as young as 3 as criminals. Nor had I envisaged how this research might be used to ostracise young children who fail to conform to socially prescribed notions of what is ‘normal’. The authors of the research (and not the Telegraph article) though clearly had, referencing the “…warnings (that) are issued about the myth of early-childhood determinism…”

While, as many pointed out, it is not a new idea to suggest that you can accurately predict future outcomes by looking at the characteristics or test results of young children. The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment (my particular favourite) and a growing body of evidence on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) support the social determinants model of health inequality.

The social determinants of health are, according to the World Health Organisation the circumstances in which people are born, grow up, live, work and age, and the systems put in place to deal with illness. These circumstances are in turn shaped by a wider set of forces: economics, social policies, and politics.”

 What the WHO doesn’t tell you is how political perspectives can take you from evidence of childhood experience and life outcomes to characterising children as deviant scroungers.

Reporting the same research, the BBC felt it appropriate to point out that “the researchers stress that children’s outcomes are not set at the age of three.”

Now this post was not intended to be about epistemology and the search for knowledge and truth – I’ll leave that to Karl Popper. Nor was it supposed to be about journalistic standards and the way facts are distorted by shoddy hacks and ideologues. It was supposed to be about the way that evidence can enable a more targeted and insight-led deployment of resources. If we are able to identify people that might need support or be at risk in the future then surely investment in preventative interventions is a good idea.

What I have learned is that the values and views of the world which underpin our approach are crucial. If you start with the view that people are inherently good and that with support they can achieve great things the way you might interpret these research findings will completely be completely different to those who see the poor and vulnerable as ‘broken’. Jude Habib has eloquently explained why we need to challenge this ‘deficit language’ and start adopting a strength-based approach which recognises and nurtures people’s talents and capabilities.

Where some see evidence that can inform a sensible way to target support to those who need it, others see it as a reason to write people off. In my work at Social Engine we advocate an evidence-based and insight-led approach but this discussion has reminded me that data are not and cannot be neutral, passive and objective when seen through the eyes of an individual.

 

For the epistemologists among you, the research was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour and can be found here.

Still crazy after all these years

When David Cameron’s former speech writer, now a charity CEO, Danny Kruger and I appeared on Radio 4’s Today Programme early in 2011, we both felt Big Society had potential (in the way that my school reports said I had ‘potential’, they’d just not seen evidence of it). The ‘Big Society brand’ was already much maligned, but strip away the labels and the idea that local people and community groups might have a greater degree of control over what happened in there area was something few would argue with.

I was aware at the time that the odds weren’t great. Cuts were starting to kick in and their pace and depth meant conditions were extremely challenging for achieving the ambition that the Big Society rhetoric aspired to.

Fast forward nearly 3 years and this week’s coverage of the Centre for Social Justice’s latest report into the voluntary sector ‘Something’s Got to Give’, makes for interesting reading. The report has been produced by an expert working group chaired by…Danny Kruger.

The report says that smaller charities are losing out to a few larger ones and struggling to survive in the current climate. It identifies regulatory barriers that are adversely affecting smaller groups’ ability to deliver public services, such as the arrangements for transferring staff from a local authority to a charity that takes over the service.

Damningly Danny says that it has been larger private sector companies that have benefitted from Coalition policy:

“The open public services agenda has often involved outsourcing to large commercial firms while small charities have struggled to participate”

There was evidence that many local authorities were giving a smaller proportion of their contracts to the not for profit sector than they had previously (though tellingly many councils did not keep records of this). The report suggests that charities with an income of under £100,000 accounted for just 3.5% of total voluntary sector income, down from 5.6% in 2006. This contrasts starkly with a tiny number of large charities with an income of over £5m each. Though these charities a 1.2% of the total number of charities their income represents almost 70% of total charity sector income.

This is a far cry from the guarded optimism of 2011. Did David Cameron’s Big Society promise us more private sector service delivery? Were we told to expect the gap between the smallest and the biggest charities to grow even wider?

Nope, though many were quick to raise precisely these sorts of concerns from the outset.

A report I produced whilst at Urban Forum, responding to the Big Society in advance of the General Election, noted:

“…the principle of enabling local communities to hold public services to account or to take over their running is positive, provided steps are taken to ensure this does not exacerbate inequalities.” [my emphasis]

I think we can safely say that whatever steps have been taken, they have not been adequate.

It is worth remembering that this is not actually anything new. Smaller community groups have been losing out to the big boys for years – whether from the not for profit sector or the private sector. Not since the days of neighbourhood renewal funding have community groups been supported to even attempt to operate on a level playing field. Labour abandoned that approach long before they lost power and the writing has been on the wall ever since.

David Cameron offered a tantalising glimpse of a change of tack. More local. More grass roots. More power to local people.

Now it seems that door has been firmly bolted and I can’t see it being opened again any time soon.