Transformation not transfer: the role of the voluntary and community sector (VCS) in public services

Fiona Sheil was responsible for co-ordinating NCVO’s programme of seminars, training and advice work on public service commissioning and procurement. Fiona left NCVO in October 2013 but we have retained her blog posts for reference.

NCVO has played a leading part in the debate about the role of voluntary and community organisations (VCOs) in the reform of public services. We have argued that many VCOs can play a crucial role in delivering public services that better meet the needs of individuals and communities. But, if they are to do so, it must be on their own terms:

  • public service delivery should contribute to the delivery of their own mission
  • it must be undertaken in ways that respect the independence of the organisation and the expertise and knowledge that they contribute
  • the services they provide must be properly costed and paid for

However, we must not lose sight, and have a clear understanding, of why the government wants the sector to take on public service delivery, and equally importantly (for both the government and VCOs) why it is that many VCOs do want to take on public service contracts. If government is not clear about what it wants to achieve by working with the sector and if it does not properly understand what benefits the sector can bring, in the context of the significant demographic pressures faced by public services.

 The roles and responsibilities of the VCS in public services

NCVO believes that the VCS Voluntary and community organisations (VCO’s) have the potential to play three different and equally important roles in the reform of public services:

  1. Identifying service need. VCO’s are often community-led, set up in response to need. This means that they are in a strong position to understand citizen and communities needs.
  2. Helping to design solutions to meet need. Many VCO’s are founded by people with direct experience of an issue and involve service users on the board or in delivery. Therefore, VCO’s should be involved in designing solutions to meet service needs. Voluntary organisations begin life in response to unmet need and unheard voices.
  3. We continue to advocate and campaign for these voices – enabling individuals from all parts of society to be heard. Delivering quality services under contract or grant agreements.

History of the VCS and public service delivery

Voluntary and community organisations delivering public services is nothing new. As long ago as 1760 the Thomas Coram Foundation was being paid by the Treasury to provide childcare services to the poor of London. Many of the most effective and equalities-driven practices within public services were begun by voluntary sector organisations.

Voluntary organisations are engaged in a broad range of public services activities. Health, social care, education and training, and housing are arguably the areas that would most resonate with the public. This in itself is not surprising – these have long been core competencies for voluntary organisations, and provision of such public services predates state involvement.

Recent governments have all promoted the role of the VCS in public service delivery – championing involvement through headline policies (the Big Society) and adapting commissioning and procurement processes to enable organisations to bid for opportunities to deliver services. By 2007/8, the VCS was delivering £12.1billion of state-funded services.

 Question: What is the future for VCS delivery of public services?

This is the question we want to explore with NCVO members over our policy review period. Publicly funded services raise substantial challenges in the long and short term. We are now in a period of significant cuts in public spending to reduce the state deficit. At the same time, our growing population of older people is placing ever-increasing burdens on costly welfare services, such as hospitals.

Subsequent governments have tried to develop blueprints for reform. The four key reform policies of recent years are continuing to dominate government thinking:

1) Personalisation

Framed as ‘choice and control’, and intending to give individual’s support tailored to their needs, this agenda also recognises the expertise and capacity in individuals to be actively engaged in making decisions and supporting themselves to recovery. Core to this agenda are user-led and peer support services.

2) Integrated services

Recognised as the only way to achieve personalisation – and often the best way to improve the quality of services and create efficiencies, remarkably little has been done to achieve this vision. Various pilots and programmes – Total Place; Local Integrated Services, Local Strategic Partners – have met with various success, but the fundamental challenge of restructuring public services to be integrated, remains.

3) Community-based care

The trend to providing services in communities or homes is driven by a cost-saving agenda, as well as providing better quality and more personalised and accessible services.

4) Opening services up to markets of competition

As demonstrated by the increased role of the voluntary sector in delivery. Services previously delivered ‘in-house’ by the private sector are now let to open competition – where private, public and voluntary sector organisations compete to win contracts.

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