How the town hall sees the voluntary sector

The relationship between the voluntary sector and local government could best be described as 'difficult': charities accuse councils of failing to understand them and of trampling on their independence, while councils often accuse charities of being unaccountable.

Lambeth town hall
Lambeth town hall

Caroline Abrahams describes the culture shock of moving to the Local Government Association from the voluntary sector and offers charities an insight into the pressures and priorities of local authorities. 

I've been programme director for children at the Local Government Association for nine months now. Before this, I spent 20 years in the third sector, mostly at national level, and made several forays into central government as an adviser.

Although in my former jobs I was a specialist in children and young people's issues, I often spoke at conferences about the role of the third sector. Now I lead on third sector issues at the LGA - a classic case of poacher turned gamekeeper. From this interesting vantage point, I can offer some thoughts on the relationship between the third sector and local government.

The most important lesson I have learned so far is just how different life looks from the point of view of local government and how big the gulf can sometimes be between local government and the sector, despite the fact that we are usually pursuing the same goals. Let me explain what I mean.

When I was employed in the third sector, I was confident that I understood local government. Lots of my friends worked in councils and I happily lobbied with them on many policy issues of shared concern. But it didn't take me long after my arrival at the LGA to realise how relatively invisible the real 'drivers' for local authorities had been to me.

In my policy area - services for children and young people - councils very clearly now hold the local strategic lead. Under the Every Child Matters agenda, the government programme for a national network of children's services, directors of children's services are accountable for delivering a wide range of services, many of which they do not directly control. It is their job, working in partnership with others, to make a positive difference for children and young people.

I knew this when I was in the third sector. But what I didn't quite see was what this meant in practice for councils. It means taking on the challenge of juggling often inadequate resources to meet stretching performance targets. It means dealing with the difficulty of simultaneously implementing four or five major change-management programmes with limited strategic capacity. Another problem is managing complex relationships with local schools as well as national and central government, on top of having to navigate the corporate and political dimensions expertly.

The attempt to do all this and much more, while constantly striving to get the best possible outcomes for local children, was more or less invisible to me when I worked in the voluntary sector. For understandable reasons, my council colleagues rarely discussed them with me. In the end, however, these things make up much of their day-to-day reality.

Harbouring misconceptions

This is not to say that life in the third sector is simple or straightforward. For example, the budgets of many third sector organisations are compiled only by assembling several different funding streams, and this takes great skill. But this, and the financial fragility that accompanies it, is not always visible to councils.

Some council members and officers know a lot about the third sector because they have worked in it themselves or they have friends or relatives who do. But many do not, and these people can be as much at risk of harbouring misconceptions about the voluntary sector as their sector counterparts are with their views of local government.

This is not necessarily anyone's fault. It's down to the fact that opportunities for mutual understanding and exchange are more limited than they should be. I think the LGA has a responsibility to try to change this and, over the next year, I hope we can begin to do so by working with partners in the third sector, such as the NCVO and Acevo.

For various reasons, life is quite tough in the children's and youth part of the third sector at present. Apart from anything else, things are always easier when public spending is growing rather than, as it is now, standing still or, in some areas, decreasing.

But I am optimistic about the future. The local government white paper, Strong and Prosperous Communities, makes it clear councils are strategic leaders and their job is to improve outcomes for people and places. This is a fantastic opportunity, but also a big responsibility. If councils are going to discharge it, they will need to draw on all their local resources across the public, private and third sectors. Fair and transparent commissioning arrangements are a prerequisite for facilitating this.

Similarly, the duty on councils to promote community cohesion and wellbeing simply cannot be met, in my view, without serious third sector involvement.

Small local organisations and community groups could have a particular contribution to make and, as government interest rightly grows in community capacity-building, this augurs well for these parts of the third sector.

Getting the contractual relationships right is clearly crucial, but there's a lot more to it than that. Over the next period, I hope we can focus equal attention on ensuring the huge potential of third sector organisations to improve community life through their advocacy and campaigning.

- Caroline Abrahams worked for the children's charity NCH for 18 years. She has also worked for and been a trustee of Lambeth Women's Aid and has chaired the boards of the End Child Poverty campaign and the Policy Research Bureau. She is programme director for children at the LGA and a trustee of the National Children's Bureau.


How to get the most out of your council



Caroline Abrahams' top tips


- Find out if there's a third sector forum in your local area. If there is, join it. If there isn't, campaign to set one up.

- Build a relationship with your local councillors by, for example, inviting them to visit your organisation. If it's appropriate, suggest a photo opportunity for the visit with the local press, or ask your councillors to speak at an event you are organising. Use these and other opportunities to explain to them what your organisation does and how it makes a difference.

- Find out who are the leading councillors for the field in which your organisation specialises - both for the party or parties in power and the opposition parties - and build relationships with them.

- If yours is a small organisation and you want to become more involved in commissioning, it might be a good idea to join or help create a consortium, rather than trying to go it alone.


The relationship in figures


- 39% of government funding to the voluntary sector in 2003/04 came from local authorities, according to the Audit Commission. This was up 5 per cent on the previous year. By contrast, funding from central government, the NHS and the EU decreased

- £3bn was spent by councils on grants and contracts to voluntary organisations

- 4% the proportion of their budgets that councils spend on the sector

- 50 the average number of voluntary organisations to which each council owes money

- 33% the proportion of local authority spending on the sector that goes to the 1 per cent of organisations whose incomes exceed £1m.

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