Guest post: current contracting arrangements are lacking in Christmas spirit

Clive_SextonThis is a guest post by Clive Sexton. Clive works at both NEAD (Norfolk Education and Action for Development) and Move on East, a Norfolk organisation that supports the reintegration of ex-offenders into the community. He is a qualified accountant who has worked in the charity sector for nearly 20 years and he has recently become involved in the co-ordination of a community allotment scheme.

Current contracting arrangements are lacking Christmas spirit

How many of us will be moved to make additional donations to charity over the festive period?  The evidence is that commissioners of public services are not likely to show the same level of faith and trust as the rest of us.

Difficulties with payment by results for charities

The drive to payment by results as an intrinsic part of the contract culture is leading to:

  • uniform services that are centrally driven
  • the undervaluing of the role of diverse local voluntary and community sector providers
  • a focus on the wrong indicators
  • a risk that the least engaged clients will be ignored on the basis that the expected return on investment is too low.

The most prominent example is of course the Work Programme, which was supposed to lead to the expansion of public services being delivered by voluntary and community organisations.  But from the outset it was clear that the necessary upfront investment, time lag and uncertainty surrounding payment would deter all but the largest not-for-profits from being involved in any significant way.  The total value of Work Programme contracts that have trickled down to voluntary sector organisations is still unknown.  But Nick Hurd MP, the Minister for Civil Society, has admitted that the programme has not developed as expected, stating:

This is something new and it is going to take a little bit of time to make sure we get it right”.

Yet many local providers do not have “a little bit of time”. Instead, they are closing down or merging with larger entities, with the inevitable loss of staff and the narrowing of choices for beneficiaries.

This brings me to the issue of what beneficiaries need as opposed to what they are receiving.

The value of the voluntary sector in public services

Focusing on crude outcomes, such as clients obtaining employment, misses the purpose of charitable work.  Charities are set up to assist specified groups of beneficiaries, so the starting point must be the beneficiary.  It may well be the case for example that someone leaving prison will benefit from assistance in gaining a job.  But for many ex-offenders there are issues that need to be addressed first, such as help with addictions, support in finding accommodation, and in many cases building the capacity to organise and manage their own lives.  It may take a long time before paid employment can be regarded as a realistic prospect.  But during that period the building of life skills may be of immense value to the client, and to wider society to the extent that it reduces the risk of reoffending.

There are of course a number of tools available to assist with measuring intermediate outcomes.  The more enlightened funders are prepared to accept evidence of achievement provided by for example the Work Star or the Adult Wellbeing Scale. They understand that the most profound impact is often achieved by organisations that are able to innovate, respond to local needs and devise their own measures of relevant outcomes. The full benefit to society, or should I say “return on investment”, may be realised many years ahead.  But someone needs to have enough faith in a provider to pay them upfront to do the work.

And “faith” is a very topical word.  There is a wonderful charity based in Norwich called St Martin’s Housing Trust, which works with homeless people.  I know some of the staff who work there, and some of those people who have received help.  I am familiar with its work.  When I make my donation I won’t pay in arrears based on how many beneficiaries obtained employment.  And I won’t ask for truck loads of evidence.  I know that they make a real difference to the lives of many of the most vulnerable people in this city. I will let them decide who to work with and where and how.  Because they are a local provider responding to local needs, and they know their business much better than I do.

Maybe public sector contractors need a little more faith?

Clive Sexton

Do you agree with Clive? Are public services really opened up to the voluntary sector?  We welcome your comments below on this topic.

This blogpost is part of a series we are running on localism and public services. Contributers are from NCVO member organisations who have participated in the online yammer discussion on these topics as part of our ongoing Open Policy Review called Tell NCVO. 
The main contact person for the policy review is Charlotte Stuffins. You can also get involved on twitter – use the hash tag #TELLNCVO or tweet @ncvocharlotte.

NCVO Policy Team’s blog

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