The Big Society - Public Administration Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by LifeLine Community Projects (BS 72)


1.  This is a written submission to the Public Administration Select Committee's Inquiry into the Big Society, outlining LifeLine's experiences of supporting local families and communities in East London over the past 10 years, as well as highlighting the lessons that we have learned as an organisation that was founded by volunteers and has delivered over £21.5 million of public service contracts since 2006.

2.  LifeLine welcomes the key philosophy behind the Government's Big Society initiative; the idea that local residents and voluntary and community sector groups can take active ownership of the challenges that their local community faces and work with local businesses and statutory bodies to achieve positive outcomes for their community.

3.  However, based upon our own experiences, we believe that the success of volunteer-led provision is dependent on the supporting infrastructure that is in place, which is very uncertain in the current fiscal climate. Thus, if the Big Society is to thrive, community-led activities must be closely interwoven with Government-funded provision via targeted and strategic commissioning of public services.


4.  LifeLine was founded in 2000 by a group of volunteers in East London, who were offering informal English language support in their own homes to marginalised and vulnerable women, who they met in the playground of their children's primary schools.

5.  As the popularity of this support grew, LifeLine began to work with local partners across the public, private and voluntary sectors to offer Government-funded and volunteer-led services that take into account the social, relationship, economic and health related factors which affect families and communities (please see Appendix 1 for more information about how the Government-funded and volunteer-led services interlink).

6.  Over the last 10 years, LifeLine has grown from a small organisation with two part-time members of staff and a £20,000 start up grant, to become one of the larger community-based, social enterprises in London. Over the past five years, LifeLine has delivered over £21.5 million of public service contracts and during this time has learned some difficult lessons about delivering public services, including:

—  monitoring partners closely throughout delivery;

—  ensuring contract compliance (eg eligibility); and

—  ensuring quality systems are implemented effectively.

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

7.  As the background paper to this Inquiry highlights, it is difficult to define exactly what a "Big Society" will or should look like. This is partly because the voluntary and community sector that already exists is as diverse as the communities that it serves. Ranging from large national charities that focus on a particular specialism to multi-purpose community groups that address the needs of a particular ward or estate.

8.  For LifeLine, the "Big Society" is the recognition that statutory services are an essential part, but not the entirety of the solution to the challenges that many communities face and that greater links with volunteer-led community activity would add considerable value to local service provision, enabling services to achieve more for less.

9.  Indeed, in many areas,[140] a "sense of community" has broken down in recent years, which means that individuals are more likely to seek out support from statutory services, such as Accident & Emergency Services, as they may not have family members or close friends living nearby. Thus in many ways, the "Big Society" is needed to make statutory services sustainable in the long term (e.g. dealing with the challenges that our ageing society and increasing mobility will bring).

10.  A recent example is the experiences of a local volunteer from our partner charity Open Doors, this volunteer made contact with a mother of four children, who was planning to hand over her children to social services that day as she felt overwhelmed and unable to cope. The volunteer spent some time with this lady and explained the support services available in her local community, including parent and child groups at her local Children's Centre, and accompanied her to access them. This was enough for the mother to feel she could continue in the knowledge that she would be able to access ongoing volunteer-led and Government-funded support that was wrapped around her local children's centre.

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

11.  There is a genuine danger that reductions in public expenditure will impact the success of the Big Society if it removes too much of the infrastructure, around which local residents and voluntary and community sector groups can develop activities that address the challenges that their community faces. In LifeLine's experience, this infrastructure has included children's centres and employment contracts for workless people who are the furthest from the labour market, in particular. In addition, the move towards more output driven payments also has the potential to reduce creativity in the delivery of the programmes that continue.

12.  However, we have found that the voluntary and community sector is resilient to change and it may develop new ways to achieve the same or better outcomes with fewer resources. For example, budget reductions are making LifeLine think differently about the services that we offer. LifeLine currently manages five Children's Centres in partnership with the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, which are facing significant budgetary constraints that make it a challenge to continue to provide both universal and targeted support to local communities.

13.  Rather than reduce universal services, LifeLine is currently exploring a new delivery model that would redefine children's centres as networks of community owned cooperatives driven by a partnership of parents, young people and local voluntary and statutory organisations, including the local authority and health services. Parents would be supported to engage not just as volunteers, but as investors: exchanging their time and effort in supporting the centre for access to services, such as Baby Massage or antenatal classes, for their own families at a reduced rate or free depending on the value of their contributions. This would free up government resources for targeted interventions for vulnerable families facing complex challenges.

14.  Finally, there are considerable risks surrounding the idea that if the Government retreats from specific areas of provision, such as libraries and community centres, local communities will necessarily be willing or able to rise to the challenge of making services work as communities are not as closely knit as they once were and often need facilitators in order to come together effectively.

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

15.  While it is critically important that volunteer labour and charitable income is not used to subsidise government bodies in the delivery of statutory responsibilities, it is also important not to let this fact detract us from the ways in which voluntary and community sector organisations can and do add value to the delivery of public services, such as schools, children's centres and programmes aiming to support people into employment.

16.  For example, in recent years, Children's Centres have shifted from their initial focus of providing targeted support to families in deprived localities towards providing a universal service to all families with children aged under five. While there are strong arguments to suggest that it is essential to maintain children's centres as universal provision to prevent the stigmatisation of vulnerable families, there are also arguments to suggest that government funding for affluent families to access services such as Baby Massage is an ineffective use of taxpayers' money. In LifeLine's view, it is these areas of universal provision, that can best be encouraged through the Big Society initiative, galvanising volunteer resources through an innovative cooperative model.

17.  Voluntary and community organisations can add value to public service delivery in other ways too; these groups often already have unique access to hard to reach individuals and and volunteer-supported activity also offers opportunities to facilitate long term change in communities that last longer than the length of an individual contract. This results in public services being more cost-effective and impactful.

18.  Public service delivery can also add value to charitable and volunteer-led activity. In LifeLine's experience, delivering public services has enabled us to achieve far more as a voluntary and community sector organisation than would have been possible if we had relied on charitable income or volunteers alone. While delivering contracts has proven challenging at times, due to eligibility restrictions and monitoring requirements, LifeLine has been able to develop a delivery model in which contracts for public services provide the infrastructure around which longer term, flexible volunteer-led support can develop, ensuring that individuals do not fall into the gaps between services and are linked into the local community.

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

19.  The current fiscal environment and changes in approaches to commissioning mean that it is a challenging time for voluntary and community sector organisations to engage in public service provision. Increasingly the Government's agenda has shifted towards achieving economies of scale through commissioning fewer, larger contracts, meaning that many of the contracts that LifeLine and other voluntary and community organisations have secured in recent years have been in partnership with larger private companies via subcontracting agreements.

20.  The challenge for voluntary and community organisations that are interested in delivering public service contracts will be to navigate a difficult funding environment, developing sustainability in such a way that can maintain high quality services, client care and their organisational ethos. To achieve this, organisations will need to closely monitor Government trends and secure the opportunities which arise swiftly and strategically, increase good relations with companies that tender for the large Prime Contracts and venture into the world of commercial trading / service provision.

21.  LifeLine is also the host organisation for FaithAction, a strategic partner to the Department of Health and a national network of over 1,000 faith and community based groups that are interested in delivering public services. Through this work, we have observed that many small voluntary and community sector organisations face significant barriers when negotiating subcontracting costs and provision with prime contractors, with a significant proportion of these organisations are going unpaid due to a lack of negotiating skills and awareness of rights.

22.  This underlines the need for capacity building to ensure that all groups can take advantage of the opportunities that arise from the Big Society, but this may need to take a different approach than previously. For example, organisations that have successfully delivered public services could provide mentoring to less experienced organisations as part of the commissioning process, rather than parallel to it.

23.  Alternatively, establishing a steering group of voluntary and community sector and other provider representatives, who can offer advice at the pre-commissioning stage would not only enable the tender documents and tendering time scales to be more "Provider-friendly", but it would also provide an opportunity for those working on the ground to feed into the strategy for achieving the Commissioners' aims.

The right to form employee-owned public service cooperatives including the resources available to co-operatives, proposed powers and rules governing their operation

24.  n/a

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

25.  In LifeLine's experience, governance and accountability issues will represent a huge challenge, particularly in terms of the traditionally risk-averse nature of the public service provision. For example, public service commissioners have often chosen to retain service provision for targeted and specialist interventions with public providers, particularly where safeguarding issues are concerned.

26.  This is understandable to a large extent as the ultimate accountability for these issues continues to rest with the public sector and additional thought will need to be given to how this will be managed in the future (e.g. will inspection bodies, such as Ofsted provide sufficient, but proportionate, safeguards?).

27.  Moreover, the Government has made clear that it intends to move towards an outcome-based approach to commissioning, which is welcome news to organisations in the voluntary and community sector. Currently, commissioning service specifications are still largely focused on prescribing what service is to be provided and when and where this will happen, with very little focus on the overall outcomes that the service will achieve and/or contribute to.

28.  Having a more outcomes led approach would encourage the achievement of positive change through tendered programmes and would also leave room for innovation from providers, but this may require a different approach to defining initial outcome measures and monitoring quality processes and procedures within voluntary and community organisations.

The implications for central Government and for the civil service of policies which require them to promote and enable, rather than to manage and direct, public services

29.  In LifeLine's view, the current budgetary challenges and idea of a Big Society, present an opportunity to fundamentally question: What is the role of central and local government? What is the role of communities? And what is the role of the private sector?

30.  These are contentious questions that all organisations will need to consider as they plan for their future. LifeLine's take on these questions is that the fundamental role of local and central Government is to be there for individuals, families and communities when things go wrong, while also providing the environment for thriving local communities.

31.  It is the second element of this role that may provide the biggest challenge for central Government and civil servants as it implies an enabling role rather than a directive role. However, much of the infrastructure for a thriving Big Society already exists, through universal provision, such as children's centres, schools, GP practices and health centres. The challenge for central Government and civil servants will be to set the framework through which local public service commissioners (in local authorities and relevant government agencies) can take a targeted and strategic approach to linking local infrastructure with local volunteer-led provision.

The place of local authorities in the transfer of power from Whitehall to communities and the role democratically elected local councillors should play

32.  Based upon our own experience of working with local authorities and democratically elected local councillors, we believe that they will need to play a vital part in creating the infrastructure around which the Big Society can grow and develop. This has certainly been the case in each to the London Boroughs in which LifeLine provides services, with financial, in-kind and strategic input proving invaluable.

33.  However, the extent to which this is needed will vary between local communities, for example, relatively affluent and close knit communities may find it easier to access capital and volunteer resources to take on the running of local services (such as the local post office) with minimal initial investment by their local authority. However, in areas with greater deprivation that do not have established local community networks, this will be much more challenging.

Potential conflicts with other aspects of public service delivery, such as individual focus of personalised public services or universal provision and uniform standards of public services (ie avoiding postcode lotteries)

34.  The involvement of voluntary and community organisations in public service delivery and volunteer-led activities is not new and risks relating to potential conflicts with personalised commissioning, universal provision and uniform standards already exist to some extent.

35.  However, these risks have been amplified at present by the speed and depth of changes that are affecting the public sector in the context of the budget deficit. The challenge is for commissioners to ensure that there is still careful and strategic commissioning that works closely with local communities and provides the infrastructure around which the Big Society can flourish.

36.  If the Big Society is too loosely defined and reliant on local communities in the absence of Government-funded provision, there is a real danger that it will become too unwieldy and difficult to measure. However, if the Big Society is interwoven into the commissioning of universal services such as children's centres, schools and GP surgeries (amongst others), there is significant potential to:

—  bring services closer to the communities that they serve;

—  empower people to see where they fit into their local community; and

—  to create long term partnerships that can provide early intervention and prevention, as well as supporting those who are reaching crisis point today.

March 2011

140   In Barking and Dagenham, where LifeLine was founded for example, only 48% of local residents believe that people from different backgrounds get on well together according to the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee's "Community Cohesion and Migration" report, June 2008 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 14 December 2011