What does the ‘D’ word mean for the voluntary sector?

Devolution is the word on everyone’s lips here at the Labour Party conference in Manchester this week. As I traipse around the fringe meetings and information stands, everyone is asking what needs to be done to get more policy and spending decisions made at local level – not just in Scotland, but across the rest of the United Kingdom too.

Devo Max:  the only show in town

It is not only the Labour Party enjoying a photo opportunity with their Scottish activists and announcing a constitutional convention. The Conservatives gathered their troops at Chequers this week to unveil a government committee to look at different devolution options for England. Political parties may have different ideas on how to deliver this agenda, but whoever wins the general election next year, we are going to see more money and decisions moved to the local level.

Thinking it through…

Getting the voices of people and communities heard by politicians is a cause that has long been close to voluntary sector hearts, but before we jump on the decentralisation bandwagon, it is worth pausing for thought about some of the implications of this agenda for our organisations and the people with whom we work.

On the one hand, devolution is a bit like motherhood and apple pie. What’s not to like?  The United Kingdom has one of the most centralised systems in Western Europe and something needs to be done to stop those faceless Whitehall bureaucrats running the lives of people in Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff and Cornwall. Should our sector welcome any form of devolution on the grounds that it will make it easier for the people we work with to have a say in the policies affecting their lives?

I think we need to engage in a detailed debate about what devolution should look like before we can answer this question, and NCVO’s Chief Executive, Stuart Etherington, has already written to William Hague (PDF, 70KB) asking the government to make sure it hears voluntary sector views on devolution.

Speaking truth to power

Take the thorny question of how to ensure all people have their voices heard by political decision-makers. Is this best achieved through a strengthening of traditional democratic institutions such as local government, as advocated in reports touted at this conference from the Local Government Association and the Centre for Labour and Social Studies?  Or through the creation of new structures such as the Police and Crime Commissioners, Clinical Commissioning Groups and Local Enterprise Partnerships created by the current government under the Localism Act?

Charities working with people on the margins of society have long advocated more direct forms of participation by citizens in government decision-making. Witness Barnardos making this happen in Manchester this week by inviting care-leavers to speak directly to politicians. What kind of devolution settlement would maximise opportunities to get all voices heard and listened to by government?

Does our unhealthy democracy need a vitamin supplement of innovative participatory methods as advocated by organisations like Involve?  Or does this lead to a consumerist form of politics in which values such as social justice give way to pollsters dictating what Joe Public wants after watching the latest episode of Benefits Street?

Paying for proper public services

A second question for our sector is how to ensure devolution delivers good quality public services. NCVO will be advocating for the voluntary sector to play a big role in both delivering and shaping newly devolved services. Commissioners must consult local organisations about user need and service design, keep reporting and monitoring requirements to a minimum, and ensure no organisation is excluded from bidding because contracts are too large, no time has been allowed for consortia-building, or payment arrangements are unsustainable.

Devolution raises difficult dilemmas about how public services get paid for. Some at the conference have called for fiscal decentralisation, whereby taxes raised in each locality get retained for expenditure in that area. It is certainly true that different places have different priorities. At the Red Cross stand here, there is a great map showing which people have signalled support for which of their campaign priorities in different parts of the country. It shows a clear cluster of support for asylum rights in the coastal parts of the North East, where many asylum-seekers have been housed by the government.

Keeping the proceeds of local taxes to meet these local priorities sounds fair at first glance, but it could make redistribution of public spending from richer to poorer geographical areas more difficult to achieve. For example, Hilary Benn MP cited recent research that he said showed that the proceeds of stamp duty in Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster amount to more than the total collected through this tax for the whole of Scotland and Wales.  Should this money be given to Whitehall for redistribution across a range of areas, or retained by these London boroughs?  Given that we are only half way through planned cuts to public expenditure, questions about allocation take on vital importance.

Rethinking our own organisations

At the very least, the devolution debate should get all of us thinking about whether our organisations are geared up to operating in the new political landscape that is emerging.  National infrastructure bodies and large organisations that have historically based most of our management team and staff in London need to consider more devolved ways of working. Does the appetite for devolution merit a wholesale reorganisation into separate chapters based in the four nations or core cities with mayors, or a franchise model of the kind used by Age UK?  Or would smaller adjustments such as the introduction of more home-based workers outside of London, or greater use of accessible technology suffice?

Showing government the way

Of course, many voluntary organisations are already ahead of the curve in showing government how to tackle big issues in a local way. Take the example of Guide Dogs UK’s services and campaigning. Local ‘mobility teams’ train guide dogs in tailored ways to suit local communities, as the life of a guide dog in the Lake District is very different to that of a dog in Birmingham. Their Talking Buses campaign for more audio services on public transport targets cities like Hull that need to do more, but focuses less on London, where such services are already commonplace.

What do you think?

What does the ‘d’ word mean for your organisation?  I’d love to hear your views.

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Ruth Driscoll Ruth Driscoll is NCVO’s Head of Policy & Public Services. She has a decade’s experience of senior level working in policy and research for overseas development organisations.

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