The five-minute policy manager – April 2014

Just in the nick of time for the end of April, here’s our latest monthly policy blog post to help you stay up to date with NCVO’s work and the latest voluntary sector policy news.

Preparing for local elections – new NCVO briefing

With only a month to go until local elections and a year until the general election, the political scene is heating up. NCVO will today publish our local election briefing – focusing on communities, local services and volunteering. 

**Update: Here is our local election briefing paper which was published on Justin’s blog earlier this week**

The Charity Commission has a new chief executive

Paula Sussex brings with her to the appointment over 20 years’ private sector and consulting experience, most recently heading CGI Logica’s public services practice. She was also a trustee at Crisis for a number of years.

One of her early jobs will be to support the passage of legislation to strengthen the Commission’s powers – including broadening their powers to disqualify trustees, for example, where they have been convicted of fraud or other offences.

Discussions are ongoing about procurement reforms

NCVO has been meeting officials who are preparing to adopt new EU procurement regulations into UK law, as well as reforms aimed at supporting SMEs in the procurement process. The final consultation on the EU plans has been pushed back until early summer, while details are worked through.

We’re urging government to consider how this dual suite of reforms can best be implemented. It’s one thing to issue guidance – but we all know (and the Almanac data below confirms) that guidance rarely gets us very far. Commissioners and procurement staff need up-to-date professional development, which explains how they can take advantage of greater flexibility under the new rules and create a more level playing field for voluntary organisations.

JRF has published a new report on commissioning

 Adding to the growing number of reports on this theme, JRF’s new report highlights the opportunity to help tackle poverty and improve social mobility through public sector commissioning. They have practical advice about how to do this, in line with the Social Value Act and in a way which is compatible with EU procurement rules (essentially, you can’t discriminate against non-local providers). They propose a “1 in a million” target, that for each £1m spent, at least one job will be created for a person who is currently disadvantaged in the labour market.

Budget measures on welfare and social investment are being enacted

The Finance Bill is working its way through parliament and, by convention, is rarely amended. This means that the new annual welfare cap will come into force from 2015/16. Our charity partners have analysed the data and forecasts that are already available from government and the OBR on welfare spending. While this provides some information, it does not currently enable a full analysis of capped and uncapped welfare spending, which is crucial to understanding how this policy is operating. We will be writing to HMT and the OBR about this.

Another measure in the Finance Bill is social investment tax relief, which investors will be able to claim on qualifying investments made since April. Guidance on the tax relief is available here. We would have expected larger charities to be early adopters of this new relief, but with a 500-employees cap and a maximum qualifying amount of investment of €200k per three years per charity, take up is likely to be limited in the next few years.

Household-name charities defend volunteering

Thirty charities have declined to provide ‘community work placements’ as part of the DWP’s new Help to Work programme. Charities including Oxfam and YMCA have argued that a scheme that forces people to volunteer or lose benefits is unjust. NCVO agrees with the charities’ statement that volunteering should remain voluntary and has asked DWP to ensure that it does not promote community work placements as ‘volunteering’. We have also been clear with DWP ministers that the other aspects of the Help to Work programme – which include intensive, specialist support – could be beneficial, but people should not have to languish for two years on the Work Programme before gaining access to this support. Their needs should instead be assessed upfront and Job Centre staff should have the discretion to refer people to the most appropriate services.

NCVO launched our latest Almanac

Covering the first year of the government’s austerity programme, we found that cuts to the voluntary sector amounted to £1.3bn in 2011/12 – slightly worse than our worst-case scenario in Counting the Cuts last year. The slides from our launch event and can be found in my latest blog post: a wake-up call to government.

More questions about payment by results

We have published a new report on PBR contracts. The obvious issues around cashflow have been well rehearsed, but our investigation confirms that contact terms have not been negotiated effectively, that financial risks have been passed down supply chains rather than absorbed by prime contractors, and that prime providers are eschewing innovation and specialist services in favour of one-size-fits-most solutions. In short, an approach intended to foster innovation risks undermining it. Moreover, PBR has not saved the state a huge amount of money – where it fails to help people with the most complex/long term needs, the costs of this failure continue to accrue to other public sector agencies. Our report last week follows an earlier one in partnership with BWB, looking at the unwieldy and sometimes counterproductive terms in many PbR contracts. It’s time to think again about whether this is an appropriate mechanism for public service contracting. In many cases, we would argue, grants would represent appreciably better value for money.

Peterborough social impact bond will end early

The flagship social impact bond at Peterborough prison has been curtailed. It was designed to pay investors back when reoffending rates of short term prisoners fell significantly below the national average. However, as supervision of all short term prisoners is due to start in 2017, there will be no control group to establish relative performance. The MoJ statement says ‘alternative arrangements’ will be made. It’s an important lesson for design of future SIBs that the policy environment rarely remains static for very long, but perhaps more significantly, that we should be careful rolling out new funding models too quickly. SIBs have a lot of potential, but we need to learn lessons along the way.

And finally, why government should measure success differently 

‘GDP measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile’.

At a lecture this month by Michael Porter, the Harvard business guru, he reminded us of this observation of Robert Kennedy. Why, Porter asked, did the Arab spring happen in countries that were supposedly economically successful? Because governments don’t always count the right things. People’s freedoms, quality of life and opportunity matter too.

Those of you that have read my blog before know that I am a fan of this type of thing. It’s hardly a new idea, but one that bears fresh scrutiny. Whether it is the Social Progress Index promoted internationally by Michael Porter, the wellbeing measures proposed last month by Gus O’Donnell’s Legatum Institute review, or at a more local level, better use of the Social Value Act and understanding people’s lived experiences of public services, it seems that measuring more of the things that matter to people is important for public policy. Watch out for a longer piece on this soon.

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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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