10 ways to involve voluntary organisations in public services

Here at NCVO, we are seeing many voluntary organisations bringing innovation to public service provision. Take, for example, the social enterprise Turning Point and its community-led commissioning model for health and social care services: local researchers are recruited from deprived neighbourhoods to help marginalised groups design services. Or the charity Changemakers and its work placement scheme, which sends young people to work in local authorities to enable them to have a say in how youth services are developed.

We are also seeing how innovative commissioning of public services can enhance social value. Social enterprise Blue Sky Development undertakes grounds maintenance for local authorities; in doing so, providing paid work for people coming out of prison and helping reduce the risk of re-offending. Fewer than 15 per cent of its employees have re-offended – a quarter of the national average for re-offending.

In our latest report, ‘Open Public Services: Experiences from the Voluntary Sector’ (PDF) we assess the involvement of voluntary organisations in public services. The report was created in partnership with 14 organisations, including the British Red Cross and Age UK. Here are our top ten recommendations for commissioners and service providers.

1) Open up the data. By making local data available in easy-to-use formats, commissioners can support service improvement and innovation. For example, when Barnsley Hospice compared their beneficiary data with local data about health deprivation, they decided to do more outreach work in the most deprived communities. Or the Great British Toilet Map, which combines data from different councils to help older people find local conveniences.

2) Communicate proactively. Early dialogue between commissioners and voluntary organisations is essential. Often voluntary organisations can share information about local needs and gaps in existing services, as well as advise on issues that will affect them in bidding for contracts. Local authorities in turn can use these conversations to explain their position and responsibilities to voluntary organisations – for example, if needing to reconfigure a service or manage certain risks.

3) Use the Social Value Act. Effective from January 2013, commissioners will be expected to consider the additional social, economic or environmental benefits that could be achieved by commissioning a service in a certain way. By specifying requirements on this basis, it is hoped to be a win-win for commissioners getting maximum value and voluntary organisations being better-placed to bid for contracts. For example, Blue Sky, mentioned above, contribute added social value by employing ex-offenders.

4) Talking about outcomes. Defining outcomes – rather than detailing specific inputs and outputs – is a great idea, but can be difficult to get right in practice. For example, the Government’s Troubled Families programme has quite short timeframes in which it expects families’ complex problems to be turned around and adults to gain work. Talking with relevant frontline professionals can help commissioners define outcomes appropriately.

5) Encourage partnership working. New collaborations within the voluntary sector, such as consortia working, can lead to more joined-up local service provision and innovation. In Conwy, for example, the British Red Cross acted as project co-ordinator for a new service that would support older people leaving hospital to regain their confidence and everyday life. The new service created a pathway of support for each individual, drawing on services from a range of local voluntary organisations. Commissioners and CVSs are well-placed to help develop these partnerships and subcontracting relationships amongst providers.

6) Retain grant funding. Central and local government should continue to offer elements of grant funding; this enables voluntary organisations to innovate, experiment and improve service provision. It can also be more efficient – particularly for supporting smaller specialist service providers.

7) Be realistic about social investment. Some voluntary organisations will find it helpful to have greater access to loans and investment, to provide them with working capital. But borrowing has risks and (sometimes high) costs associated with it, that mean it will not be appropriate for many voluntary organisations and they should not be forced down this route.

8) Be prepared. Voluntary organisations need to know exactly what they are getting into, when they consider taking on public service contracts. They should ensure sufficient operational and strategic skills to manage and deliver these contracts, and also be fully aware of legal requirements that will need to be fulfilled, such as TUPE.

9) Share experiences and best practice across sectors. Innovation and good practice should be celebrated and shared; for example, Westminster Council have contributed a chapter on community budgets to our public services report. Voluntary organisations are likewise encouraged to share their experiences of successful subcontracting arrangements.

10) Adhere to Compact principles. The Compact is the agreement between Government and the voluntary sector that sets out key principles and establishes a way of working that suits both sectors. Both the voluntary and public sectors should adhere to the commitments made in the Compact when commissioning public services.

This article is written by Charlotte Stuffins, formerly policy trainee at NCVO. It was originally published in November 2012 in Ethos journal under the title ‘How to involve voluntary organisations in public services’.

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Charlotte Ravenscroft was NCVO’s head of policy and public services. Charlotte’s wrote about funding, public service delivery, and strengthening the evidence base for voluntary action. She has also worked at The National Lottery Community Fund and the Department for Education.

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