Almanac data is a wake up call to government

At this morning’s breakfast launch of NCVO’s Civil Society Almanac, we announced our estimate that voluntary sector income from government fell by £1.3bn between 2010/11 and 2011/12. This figure is hardly surprising, but highly significant. Overall government spending fell at a considerably lower rate than this.

Presentation slides from our Almanac launch event on Friday 4 April.

NCVO has always recognised that charities could not be immune from spending cuts. We have always been clear that charities need to demonstrate their value for money – and that we are part of the solution, improving the communities and world around us. Yet for all this, there are conscious choices that the government has made – and omitted to make – that have hit our sector hard.

We’ve heard frequently that government sees the value of voluntary action and voluntary organisations – but the heady days of the big society now seem distant. Despite a very positive open public services agenda, social value act and localism, the government has too often overlooked the need for effective implementation. Some great ideas have gone nowhere because of a lack of leadership, communication, training, data and accountability. In short, the government has a delivery problem.

These figures will not be a surprise to many in the sector who have been at the sharp end of decommissioning, insourcing, commissioners’ expectations that charitable resources should subsidise government contracts, and the relentless shift of public service delivery towards an ever smaller number of ever larger contracts. Our members tell us that the quality (and therefore value for money) of public services is increasingly taking a backseat to securing the cheapest price.

In the last year, I have visited charities that have managed to buck these trends. I have also spoken to many of our members who are not interested in delivering public services yet provide incredibly valuable complementary support for individuals and their communities – and who can help to identify needs and provide advocacy for those at the margins. Funded or not, charities tell us that it’s not just about the money. It’s also about the opportunity for a proper, open conversation about how public services could be better and what is happening on the ground for the people they work with.

So, though today’s figures may not be surprising, they are nonetheless a wake up call for anyone interested in a healthy voluntary sector and open – in all senses – public services.

We need a new conversation. And we’d like to start with the following questions for all political parties:

  • What’s their vision for the voluntary sector’s role?
  • Will they commit to a review of open public services?
  • Will they take the steps necessary to fix commissioning?
  • Is anyone prepared to rethink the relentless shift to contracts, PbR and ever-increasing scale?
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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 Big Lottery Fund and the Department for Education.

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