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
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:
partners closely throughout delivery;
contract compliance (eg eligibility); and
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,
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
services closer to the communities that they serve;
people to see where they fit into their local community; and
create long term partnerships that can provide early intervention
and prevention, as well as supporting those who are reaching crisis
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