The Big Society - Public Administration Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by TimeBank (BS 50)

TimeBank has identified five areas for scrutiny and questioning (numbered to correspond with the "Smaller Government: 'Bigger Society'"? Issues and Questions Paper.) However, we would particularly like to draw the committee's attention to our response to question 2, "the impact and consequences of reductions in public expenditure on the Government's ambitions to deliver its vision for the Big Society". TimeBank has very recently been notified that the strategic partner funding from the Office for Civil Society will be cut, after five years as a recipient, from 31 March of this year. This has given TimeBank three weeks to re-structure, make staff redundant and scale back its direct support to help and encourage volunteers. It will also affect their ability to roll-out pilot programmes that deliver services to the mentally ill, refugees and ex-Service men and women. We cannot possibly see how this action remains congruent with the Government's vision for the Big Society.

Questions addressed are:

1.  A definition of what the "Big Society" is or should be.

2.  The impact and consequences of reductions in public expenditure on the Government's ambitions to deliver its vision for the Big Society.

3.  The role of and capacity for the voluntary and community sector to deliver local public services including the appropriateness of using charitable income or volunteer labour to subsidise costs.

4.  Possible problems and challenges from increased commissioning of public service provision from the voluntary and community sector as envisaged by the Government.

6.  Governance and accountability issues arising out of different organisational forms of social enterprises and co-operatives; and the participation of voluntary sector and community groups in greater public service provision.

We have submitted our key feedback and are keen to meet with the Committee to discuss further detail including evidence for the points we are making.

1.  A definition of what the "Big Society" is or should be

We believe that "Big Society" is: People who want to have the opportunity to have an active role in shaping society are supported to do so.

1.1  We believe the Big Society concept happens already and has been happening for a long time. However Government finds it hard to measure or control, and there are some inactive groups that could be encouraged to be more active if they were given the support they specifically need to get involved where they can.

1.2  One in four of us volunteer in some form, either once or more often, according to previous Active Citizenship surveys and we should be proud of our status in the world outside of the USA as a particularly active community. Our position as 29th in the world for active citizenship should be borne in mind with the fact that we are also a country with the longest working hours. We believe people are giving what they can. Raising awareness about participation and the value of volunteering through the Big Society tag is good, but there are limits to what some people can meaningfully offer. Volunteers need a certain amount of hand-holding to move them from thinking about volunteering to actually DOING it and if they receive support along the way they are much more likely to come back and volunteer again. This is an area that TimeBank has been particularly influential in with its tailored support and advice via its "Volurator" which is a volunteer rating system along the lines of "TripAdvisor".

1.3  Improvements to support the inactive groups require better local connections in communities, and some interventions to ensure accessible and inclusive participation facilitated by experts in this field. This is the value of having local and regional infrastructures for volunteering in the form of personal bespoke advice and guidance and not just in electronic form.

1.4  Total local power by residents comes with a risk of lack of expertise, skills or resource in some communities. The threat is that wealthier communities will benefit the most, whilst poorer or less well-connected communities will become worse off. Communities may also specialise in a particular agenda and this may prevent inclusion and accessibility. Therefore some degree of coordination and training is necessary.

1.5  If we do not allow for regional and national sharing of best practice and communication methods, we risk "reinventing the wheel" and unnecessary duplication of effort.

1.6  Core services should be automatically provided with parity of access across the country and the voluntary and community sector should be providing additionality and not acting as a substitution for services that have experienced public funding cuts. It is worth the Committee considering if all volunteering is necessarily good. For example, the impact on very vulnerable people from services relying on volunteers rather than paid experts.

1.7  The "Soup kitchen" response is not the long-term answer to community needs. Experts provide checks and balances that help individuals and communities become empowered to change their own circumstances.

1.8  Who will represent those who can't speak up for any reason? Will only the most active, educated and vocal citizenships influence services and decision-making? This is also the role of the voluntary and community sector infrastructure.

1.9  People don't believe their vote really matters. Will the Locality agenda really change this, or do we need to combine engagement in local decision-making with local volunteering action that empowers and gives confidence to the hidden voices in our community. Ultimately, Government can't define Big Society and control it.

2.  The Impact and Consequences of reductions in public expenditure on the Government's ambitions to deliver its vision for the Big Society

2.1  To be able to deliver the vision for the Big Society, Government needs to understand the role of support agencies or infrastructure in broadening reach, access and engagement to volunteering and community activities, as well as its role in establishing basic good practice, supplying capacity to groups and communities and reducing the barriers to volunteering with individuals. Expecting more community activity from individuals without any source of support, referral, guidance, expertise in the form of local community experts like Volunteer Centres and Councils for Voluntary Service is naïve, and if continually ignored or under-invested in, at some point will need to be reinvented at greater cost. This has so far, been largely overlooked or, indeed, written off as a valid point to securing a sustainable legacy from the Big Society activities supported by Government. In addition one of the important functions provided by infrastructure organisations is the ability to implement and monitor safeguarding controls.

2.2  Whilst the Government's volunteering infrastructure fund sounds very encouraging for the sustainability of second tier support to communities, there is, however, uncertainty about what form the future support structure will take, when it will be announced, and whether public sector funding is restricted to specific public sector service delivery contracts. A general understanding about who pays for support for volunteers and voluntary sector groups, and how this might be built into funding volunteering within the Big Society framework is vital to the future sustainability of increased participation.

2.3  Therefore, we are disappointed that the national strategic partnership programme is being reduced so rapidly and finally scrapped in 2014, as this programme offers excellent support for capacity-building, information sharing and expert consultation to inform national policy. TimeBank has just been notified that we are to be a casualty of the programme cuts and, as a result, will have to dramatically scale back our activity schedule and programme delivery. Ironically, for the past 10 years TimeBank has been delivering the "Big Society" with government support and it is now that we have a "big society" Government in power that we are forced to scale back the support of our volunteers to the most vulnerable groups in society such as mentally ill veterans, refugees and young people.

2.4  Community Experts, such as Volunteer Centres, are the perfect place to promote local partnerships and greater collaboration. However, public funding is rarely available and, if commissioned more appropriately, Volunteer Centres could help to build on the networking that already takes place through the brokerage and development services locally and encourage the sector to add value to each other's activities.

2.5  Great opportunities need to encompass fitting in to individual's lives and the priority responsibilities they have to themselves, their health, their families and their work. Creating a varied, appropriate, challenging, flexible, creative suite of opportunities is about working with the voluntary and public sectors to determine how volunteers can support the work of not-for-profits whilst taking into consideration the barriers to engagement. This requires a support structure that helps frontline groups to focus on their priority tasks and builds in expert good practice, experience and local knowledge to build the capacity of the group to respond to the opportunity of involving volunteers. That support structure is rapidly disappearing due to cuts in public spending and, specifically, the dramatic cuts to the OCS strategic partners programme.

3.  The role of and capacity for the voluntary and community sector to deliver local public services including the appropriateness of using charitable income or volunteer labour to subsidise costs

3.1  Big Society is a narrative, rather than being definable.

3.2  Our sector—particularly the majority of voluntary and community organisations that are very small and local, are successful at reaching the hardest to reach and identifying local community needs, lacks the resources and skills to competitively tender. In addition, the infrastructure organisations that could up skill these organisations to tender are disappearing under the spending cuts regime which ignores the need to invest in existing successfully delivering groups.

3.3  A statement, or guidance is required of what is appropriate for the voluntary and community sector and volunteers to deliver within traditional public services. This goes back to our earlier point about subsidising and substituting for lost statutory service funding.

3.4  Volunteering in the public service sector can be about engaging service users in delivering solutions, but should be a choice and not coerced under threat of losing a service altogether which the community decides is crucial and should be statutory.

3.5  The voluntary and community sector is very good at supporting engagement by service users, and mentoring and befriending is a complementary service that we can offer the public sector.

3.6  Measuring impact is very difficult in the short-term, as volunteering can have a much broader impact on the individual, the community and the state. However, where projects are longer term, the payment by results method may exclude the very organisations who can provide real long term positive results but lack the reserves and financial resources of larger or private sector organisations.

3.7  Under-investment in the voluntary and community sector in terms of support and funding by the public sector results in an impoverished sector. Volunteers sometimes cover previously paid-for roles, however, they can't be the experts you need to deliver services properly, regularly and reliably, and for the long term.

4.  Possible problems and challenges from increased commissioning of public service provision from the voluntary and community sector as envisaged by the Government

4.1  There is a significant workforce issue on moving public services to the voluntary and community sector which needs to be addressed. This includes TUPE implications and job substitution litigation.

4.2  The size of new contracts is increasingly excluding local organisations, which risks a loss of local knowledge and reach.

4.3  Volunteers also have better relationships with local groups rather than more remote national groups, and this fits in line with the Localism agenda.

4.4  The cash cost for bidding is prohibitive to small and local groups, and contract and tendering law means that ring fencing commissions that should be delivered by the voluntary and community sector can not be supported if not through a grant. The risk is that the private sector increasingly takes over these commissions without having local reach and knowledge, particularly given that the volunteer sector admits it is much more focused on delivering activities than selling them.

4.5  The damage to the purpose, meaning and value of the volunteering effort is enormous if the public sector requires people to deliver services which may not be consistently delivered through the use of volunteers. For example, a hospital taxi service for vulnerable patients must always be staffed and a replacement service would need to be planned in case volunteers drop out. This provision may actually cost more money than the original public sector managed service.

4.6  However, the cash-flow implications of public service contracting is the major barrier for voluntary and community sector inclusion and engagement with public service provision.

6.  Governance and accountability issues arising out of different organisational forms of social enterprises and co-operatives; and the participation of voluntary sector and community groups in greater public service provision

6.1  Payment by results is the biggest preventer of participation in public service provision by the voluntary and community sector, followed closely by the often restricted remit by geography or mission for the organisation. This means that the voluntary and community sector are unable to respond to larger cross-contract multi-client commissions.

6.2  Accountability is a key concern, which could be resolved by investment in voluntary sector infrastructure to support informal and small groups to build capacity to be as accountable as Government requires for contracts.

6.3  We believe the voluntary and community sector is actually far more accountable than the private sector, and more transparent, due to our governance structures. However, the private sector profit agenda means it's easier to compete without having to be so transparent for every penny spent.

6.4  There should be accountability to beneficiaries and a transparent process to show who is benefiting from commissioning public service provision and how. There may be doubts as to whether beneficiaries might be cherry-picked by private sector contracts, where the voluntary and community sector will focus on supporting the most excluded.

6.5  Groups of local people or Community Organisers working alone will need to be accountable which means that they then have to rely on infrastructure or become a more formal group, which is against the principles of the Big Society. In addition, infrastructure and back office functions are needed to support more spontaneous or short-term activities by local groups.

6.6  Trustees are risk-averse but shareholders are not so, and this is a key point to understanding the advantages and disadvantages to supporting voluntary sector engagement with public services.

6.7  The risk of mission drift to access funding may also undermine the principles, purpose and value of volunteering, and there is still a big debate to be had about the use of volunteers in Community Interest Companies and social enterprises.

March 2011

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 14 December 2011