How do local authority commissioners want to work with the voluntary sector?

To gain an insight into how the voluntary sector can best work with local authority commissioners, NCVO held a workshop with four council leaders at its 2016 Annual Conference.

We heard that funding cuts and demographic pressures mean commissioners’ roles are changing. In some areas, they are seeking to become ‘enablers’ for provision, rather than purely service purchasers. Some authorities are also making greater use of innovative commissioning and partnerships. This could provide new opportunities for joint working between the voluntary sector and commissioners.

Why do commissioners value the sector?

Our commissioners told us the sector had a lot to offer local authority partners:

  • Experience
  • Expertise, knowledge and skills
  • Access to communities that public bodies might struggle to engage
  • Access to community assets

How can the sector best work with commissioners?

Our local authority representatives gave us their top tips for how the voluntary sector can work with commissioners:

  • Engage – the sector should take advantage of any opportunities to provide input, including through provider information events.
  • Demonstrate quality – charities need to be able to evidence the impact of their work and the calibre of their organisation, including through highlighting staff expertise and quality standards.
  • Be realistic – charities should recognise that cuts and time pressures limit what local authorities can do.
  • Develop solutions – the sector can look for ways to tackle key problems and fill gaps in service provision, and can help commissioners develop place-based services.
  • Don’t be modest – charities should be explicit about their strengths.
  • Talk to councillors – if charities are having difficulties working with local authority commissioners, they shouldn’t be afraid to explain their work to councillors.

How can commissioners improve sector working?

Some commissioners are taking steps to overcome the ‘splendid isolation’ that can exist between commissioners and charities to develop a shared sense of purpose. This includes providing opportunities for sector input, so that charities can have a say on policies and commissioners can gain a greater understanding of the sector.

However, our local authority leaders highlighted some key challenges to joint working. Commissioners and charities need to use a shared language so that they aren’t talking past each other.

Relationships between organisations need to be consolidated so that they don’t fall apart when individual members of staff who have developed strong connections leave.  And commissioners need to provide opportunities for a wide range of sector organisations to engage, rather than just working with the usual suspects.

What next?

NCVO is hosting the 2016 Public Services Conference: Stronger Sector, Better Services in September, to offer guidance and tools for the voluntary sector in public services. You can register your interest online now.


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Bethan was NCVO’s trainee public services officer.

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