How to oil the wheels of the Compact

Andy Ricketts asks how charities and the public sector can improve their often dysfunctional relationship.

The Learning and Skills council
The Learning and Skills council

There was much mirth when the woman running Relate was brought in to broker the relationship between the voluntary and public sectors. But more than six months after Angela Sibson was appointed the first chief executive of the Commission for the Compact, the two sectors are still feeling their way towards better relations.

Last week, the Learning and Skills Council, which wants to encourage more charities to commission services, appointed nine 'charity ambassadors' to improve its work with voluntary organisations. Yet the LSC has a history of Compact breaches and was described by the NCVO as having a "bullying culture" towards the voluntary sector.

So are initiatives such as this effective, and how should the challenge of encouraging the two sides to work together be tackled?

Charities mistaken

Nick Aldridge, director of strategy at chief executives body Acevo, says charities have been mistaken in thinking that both sectors were pulling together, and reckons they should be tougher. "We have been too soft and taken in by the rhetoric of 'we are all working together', when actually we might not be," he says. "Maybe the answer is not to sit in meetings and have friendly discussions but to be more hard-nosed in negotiations."

Talk to most charities about relations with the public sector and discussion tends to turn to the Compact.

Introduced in 1998, the agreement is designed to improve the relationship between the public and voluntary sectors. But it is a voluntary agreement and its implementation has been patchy at best. Many public bodies do not even know that it exists.

Saskia Daggett, Compact manager at the NCVO, is convinced that proper promotion of the agreement would help to improve the situation. "The Government has not invested in it or told people about it," she says. "Many procurement officers, commissioners, legal advisers working for local authorities and finance managers have no idea that the Compact even exists. It is a fundamental flaw; it's not going to work if you do not tell people about it.

"When there is investment, such as through a Compact development officer, the relationship dramatically improves. We need to call on the Government to fund it, and we must call on charities to challenge public sector partners if they are not keeping to it."

Simply communicating better can help. She says: "When funding is cut, departments and public bodies often just shut down and stop communicating. That's not partnership."

The Government's answer to the problem she describes is its recent announcement of a £2m programme to train local council staff who commission services from the voluntary sector.

Neil Cleeveley, director of information and policy at umbrella body Navca, says one local authority facing cuts to its central government grant called local charities to discuss the resulting reductions in its own grants.

He says this is the type of mature relationship that must be developed, but it remains unusual. "It ought to be in the interest of the local authorities, primary care trusts, police and so on to have a strong and healthy voluntary sector," says Cleeveley. "They should be saying 'what can we do to help you access more resources?', not 'we are making a £100,000 cut - end of story'."

Effective relations between charities and public bodies can be fragile, he adds, because they often rely on relationships between key people rather than being standard practice.

Sophie Livingstone, head of policy and communications at homelessness charity Foyer, believes intermediary organisations should be set up in each area to help bodies sort out their differences.

"Sometimes different public bodies' requirements work against each other because they think only about their own bit and not how their targets will affect other areas," she says. "If you could make commissioning deadlines coterminous so that charities could put together a complete package of support that makes sense from a service user's point of view, that would help."

Ultimate solution

Compact commissioner John Stoker says Chancellor Gordon Brown's commitment to a norm of three-year funding arrangements could help.

Ultimately, individual models of good partnership could be needed for different areas, rather than one model for everyone, Stoker says.

"The commission is looking at this," he elaborates. "What seems to be present in those organisations with positive partnerships are factors such as board-level discussion of how the Compact is implemented in their organisation, along with front-line champions."

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