The Big Society - Public Administration Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Voluntary Centre Services North Kesteven (BS 74)

Voluntary Centre Services North Kesteven is a branch of Urban Challenge Ltd, a charitable company that runs local voluntary and community sector business development services in Lincolnshire.

This response is based on our experience of supporting local grassroots community organisations and enabling a diverse range of people to overcome personal barriers and get involved in volunteering.

In summary:

—  Big Society should be a celebration and recognition of voluntary and community activity, in order to inspire others.

—  Current perceptions of "Big Society" are largely negative amongst the people who ought to form its very core.

—  There is a conflict between the desire for greater local community delivery, and the actual support required to enable this to happen (which is under threat due to cuts).

—  Giving (time and money) is based on goodwill, which has to be earned. Extreme cuts in public expenditure are unlikely to result in much goodwill to support Government schemes.

—  Voluntary and community sector organisations are businesses too - and have the same costs as any other businesses.

—  Volunteers are not "free" labour, and they work by choice not contract. Successful volunteer involvement on a large scale needs high level people management skills.

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

1.1  What Big Society should be: Recognition and celebration of all that people already give to society, and the support services that enable and facilitate this activity. Recognition of the contribution currently made would be motivational, empowering and inspiring, and would lead to greater involvement and participation.

1.2  As all good Volunteer Centres and volunteers' managers already know, the first rule of successful and effective volunteer involvement is to inspire and motivate. So if the Government genuinely wants Big Society to work it should listen to those of us who already have years of experience of involvement in (and successful management of) unpaid community work.

1.3  What Big Society is at the moment: Empty rhetoric, which has so far been unsuccessful for the following reasons:

—  The misguided desire for "new" initiatives and systems is, by implication, a failure to value the significant contribution that millions of people already make to society (all of which is actually in line with the Government's stated aims for communities to do things for themselves), but the only message that these people are receiving is that what they do is not recognised or valued by those in power. Which actually makes them less inclined to help, not more.

—  People are aware that what the Government is doing is repackaging and rebranding - and the natural assumption which follows is that Government will also be aiming to take credit for the successes. Big Society is therefore perceived as little more than a marketing exercise. Anecdotal evidence within the community in which we work suggests that many people are rather tired of this "spin and no substance" approach.

1.4  The likely consequence of the above is reduced motivation, less goodwill, more "initiative fatigue", people feeling taken for granted, risk of loss of support … all amongst the very people who would naturally form the core of a genuinely "Big Society".

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  A few local examples of people affected by reductions in public expenditure, which begin to demonstrate that not only is there an impact on service users who lose support that would have enabled them to take a more active positive part in society, but also an impact in terms of fewer high quality opportunities for people to give their time as volunteers:

—  Closure of SOVA, a local charity that worked with young offenders and young people at risk of offending. Result: loss of mentoring support for vulnerable young people who need one-to-one support to help break negative patterns of behaviour, and loss of opportunities for people to volunteer as mentors.

—  Closure of CALL Advocacy, a local charity that aimed to empower vulnerable people. Result: loss of support that enables vulnerable people to make changes to society/community that would enable them to get the most out of life, and loss of opportunities for people to volunteer as advocates.

—  Closure of Lincoln Mind, a branch of a national charity that provided a safe environment for peer support and activities for people experiencing mental health problems. Result: loss of safe, informal support and activities that aid recovery and rehabilitation, and loss of opportunities for people to volunteer in a variety of supportive roles.

2.2  Reductions in funding to local organisations that already facilitate "Big Society" in action (eg councils for voluntary service, volunteer centres, rural community councils). Services currently supported, that face an uncertain future beyond April 2011:

—  Community enterprise development.

—  Business development, leadership and management support for small groups, unincorporated associations, clubs, societies, emerging charities and social enterprises.

—  Workforce development within voluntary/community organisations and other volunteer-involving projects/services.

—  Facilitation of collaborative and partnership working at a local community and district level.

—  Volunteering opportunity development, promotion and brokerage. Provision of advice and guidance enabling local people to give time to organisations that match their passions, skills and aspirations.

2.3  Not only do these services directly support local communities who want to do it for themselves, they enable a diverse range of people from all walks of life to make an active contribution to society and support local civil society organisations to set up, generate income and improve quality of services.

2.4  It would be a great waste of public money to lose this, only to realise in a year's time that it would be a great idea to have these sort of services and have to set up from scratch. Surely it would be better to invest a little in improving the existing infrastructure, and enable people who already have the experience and the expertise to do more, better.

2.5  All these examples are not just about loss of services, expertise and the impact on the people who use the services. It's also leading to a loss of goodwill—and goodwill is fundamental to achieving Big Society aims. The loss of goodwill is not only amongst service users and volunteers, but also amongst staff who find themselves made redundant. What would motivate someone to take part in the Government's "Big Society", when their perception is that it's the Government that has cut their jobs?

2.6  An example to illustrate this: Lincolnshire County Council staff whose jobs are under threat have already expressed a negative view of volunteers and volunteering in a widely circulated petition trying to save their jobs.

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  Role and capacity of voluntary and community sector to deliver public services: The voluntary and community sector is much more than just those organisations that have had, or could have, a share of the public purse. A large number of the local charities and civil society organisations we support are unincorporated and/or:

—  Have no interest in delivering public services. They were set up to fulfil needs that are not met by the public or private sectors and aim to continue to do so without risk of "mission drift", extra paperwork etc.

—  Are not in a position to research/bid for/take on the large contracts that commissioners prefer.

—  Are too small to even consider sub-contracting (many have no paid staff or premises), even if their services complement the aims of the tender.

3.2  Although these organisations are also less likely to be directly affected by cuts in public spending, the support services they use are affected. For example, we have until recently been able to provide training courses funded by public money and free at the point of access for voluntary/community sector organisations. However this service cannot continue unless further funding can be found to subsidise the costs. Small grassroots community organisations do not have the resources to pay private sector market rates for training and similar services.

3.3  Using charitable income to subsidise costs of public services: It is unrealistic to expect any business (charitable or otherwise) to deliver public services on anything other than a "full cost recovery" basis. It makes no business sense for an organisation to take on a contract that is financially unsustainable, or means that they operate at a loss on a long term basis.

3.4  Charitable income is restricted by law, it has to be spent in accordance with the charity's objects, and the trustees are responsible for ensuring this. It is not up to commissioners of public services to make decisions or requirements about what charitable income should be spent on.

3.5  Using volunteer labour to subsidise costs of public services: Volunteers are not free. They require the same investment in terms of recruitment, management time, support, training and expenses as any other member of the workforce, particularly if the service they provide is part of a publicly funded contract. The only thing that is different is the absence of salary costs.

3.6  In addition volunteers are under no contractual obligation, they work by choice. So anyone commissioning public services and expecting volunteers to be involved in the delivery needs to appreciate and accept the risks associated with that. For many critical public services it would be inappropriate to rely on volunteers for delivery. But the involvement of volunteers can actually add significant value to a core service, where the dynamics of volunteering are properly understood and utilised in a positive way - to add value, rather than save money.

3.7 The phrase "use volunteer labour" suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between a volunteer and the cause they volunteer for.

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  The biggest challenge to overcome seems to be the expectation that the voluntary and community sector can (and should) deliver public services "on the cheap". In fact they have the same costs as any other supplier, including the need to make a surplus to invest in the survival of the business. It is short-sighted to think that the normal rules of business somehow don't apply to the voluntary and community sector.

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

5.1  People setting up new local organisations like co-operatives need support and skills development. But cuts to services mean that the current local expertise, governance/leadership support and training providers who have experience of community sector models of business is under threat, and likely to be absent in many areas of the country by April, and certainly by the end of this year unless something is done to sustain it.

5.2  How can these small fledgling co-operatives compete for contracts? Especially when commissioners are wanting large, consistent providers of "one size fits all" services, because that's what they see as "efficiency".

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  The blurring of the lines between types of companies could lead to:

—  Abuse of tax breaks, discounted rates and other preferential help designed to support and enable the charity sector to direct its resources for the benefit of society.

—  Loss of the above benefits for some organisations in a backlash attempt to try to prevent abuses.

6.2  There will need to be clear lines drawn to ensure transparency/accountability for any organisation that claims to have some sort of "community benefit", not least so that funders, donors and volunteers can be confident that their contribution is making the difference they expect and their time/money is worth giving.

6.3  Consideration will need to be given to how this is achieved, to maintain public confidence in social and community sector organisations, whilst at the same time keeping monitoring and bureaucratic burdens to a minimum.

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

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

8.1  Local councillors need to be more accountable to the public and the communities they serve—and not just at election time. Councillors' approach to grassroots activity varies widely, and is not always consistent with the "Big Society" ethos designed to empower communities to take action for themselves.

9.  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)

9.1  "Postcode lotteries" and patchy/inconsistent delivery of services is inevitable if local public services are opened to contract, but is it desirable? Contrary to the popular belief amongst politicians (of all persuasions) that "what people want is choice"—they don't. What people want is confidence in their nearest school/hospital/social care provider. Most people would prefer not to have to do research, make difficult choices or have to fight to get the best service at critical times in their lives.

9.2  To avoid patchy/inconsistent delivery commissioners may choose to only award big contracts, in which case the local employee-owned or voluntary sector organisations will struggle to compete in any case.

9.3  Personalised budgets bring another set of problems—organisations providing services that budget holders might choose to "buy" need some upfront capital to start/operate with in the first place. Are holders of personal budgets prepared to use their budgets to pay for services which they have previously been able to access for free because they were publicly funded?

9.4  Just because something is not economically viable in a free market economy does not mean it has no value. In fact, the opposite is true—in a truly civilised society the things that have most value to people are non-material things. Experiences are what enrich us and our quality of life—the child who discovers the natural world by watching a beetle through a lens at a volunteer-run wildlife club; the family whose weekly visits to the local library's storytime are a brief respite from everyday real life pressures etc. These are the things that "Big Society" should be about, yet they are the very experiences that are under threat right now.

March 2011

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 14 December 2011