Building devolution from the ground up

At the heart of devolution is the belief that decisions should be made by the people affected most. Nowhere is this more important than the design and delivery of public services, some of which are under intense pressure.

With huge experience of addressing complex needs and advocating on behalf of disadvantaged groups, charities are an important partner for combined authorities looking to use their newly acquired powers to redesign struggling public services.

Given the privileged access to local knowledge that charities enjoy, and how their expertise can be used to improve  public services commissioning, our new report (PDF, 920KB) explores the extent to which charities across England are contributing to the development and delivery of devolution plans.

Limited engagement

We found that the vast majority (84 per cent) of the 249 organisations who replied to our survey on the topic had not contributed in any way to the development or delivery of devolution plans in their area.

Nearly half put this down to a lack of awareness of the devolution agenda, while a similar number pointed towards a lack of engagement by their local authority. Just over a quarter said a lack of time and resources had played a part in their organisation’s lack of involvement.

Perceived barriers to devolution’s success

We heard how the prevailing funding climate, an excessive focus on economic issues (rather than redesigning public services, building stronger communities and increasing civic engagement) and poor commissioning and procurement practice (a well-rehearsed subject for NCVO’s public services work) all represent barriers to maximising the voluntary sector’s role in devolution.

These barriers are particularly problematic for smaller organisations. The vast majority of the charities we spoke to had an income of less than £1m per annum.

A lack of community engagement

While charities are well-placed to engage with local communities, there is perhaps scope to do more. Just under half of those involved in their area’s devolution plans said they had sought feedback from their local community. This highlights how shifting power from Whitehall to local government does not in itself guarantee that people will have more say over decision making in their area.

Pockets of good practice

While involvement of the voluntary sector has been inadequate, we did hear about some excellent examples of good practice.

In some areas, charities are playing an active role in the delivery of devolution deals by sitting on leadership boards and steering groups. Some are also facilitating the input of local communities through consultation events. In a minority of cases, charities are helping to co-write aspects of the devolution proposals and have been directly involved in negotiations with central government.

Promoting a ground up approach to devolution

To increase the future involvement of communities in the devolution agenda we believe government – both local and central – and charities themselves need to do more.

Government should…

Central government should set clear minimum standards for approving proposals, including engagement with the voluntary sector and other local stakeholders, and request plans that show how charities will be involved in the implementation of agreed deals.

Importantly, we believe government should set realistic timeframes to give local authorities enough time to develop strong relationships with each other and engage with key stakeholders.

Local government should ensure that devolution plans reflect the needs and aspirations of local communities by guaranteeing the representation of charities on boards and working groups related to devolution, as well as existing leadership structures. Where possible, they should also provide support – both financial and logistical – to help charities engage in devolution discussions and collect feedback from local communities

The voluntary sector should…

It is important, however, that the voluntary sector plays its part.

This includes taking a proactive role in shaping the development and delivery of devolution deals by engaging with local communities on their preferences for devolution plans and relaying this information to decision makers.

National and local infrastructure bodies should ensure that the wider voluntary sector is better informed about the devolution agenda and opportunities for involvement.

Lastly, the voluntary sector should look to present a united front in its conversations with local and central government, and where possible, collaborate more in the interests of communities.

Where next?

We hope this research will stimulate debate around the voluntary sector’s role in the devolution agenda and how is can be increased going forward. Watch this space for further developments.

In the meantime, feel free to provide your thoughts on the devolution agenda by commenting below.

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Paul Winyard Paul Winyard is NCVO’s policy officer. He covers issues around public services, improving commissioning and procurement practice, and advancing the Social Value agenda.

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