Over the past decade or so, the voluntary and community sector has too often accepted without challenge the prevailing ideology and practice of applying market mechanisms to public services and the associated view that the key role of the VCS is that of a contractor rather than an advocate.
This is in part understandable given that bidding for contracts might be the only source of funding and potentially the only way of meeting needs, but it is now time for the voluntary and community sector to call time on marketisation and competitive tendering of public services. It's also time to argue that public sector funding for sector development and support, including local infrastructure, should not be dependent on competitive tendering.
Almost without exception, when I talk to trustees, staff and volunteers at small VCS organisations and to those involved in local VCS infrastructure bodies, there is one very clear message: they are disappointed and frustrated in equal measure with the public sector’s (and especially local government’s) approach to commissioning and procurement. In particular, they are concerned that strategic commissioning is too often conflated with procurement and, indeed, with competitive procurement A public service ethos based on values and the public interest is at risk of being replaced by markets driven by price and competition.
This means that public sector commissioning is invariably interpreted and seen as little more than a means to procure services rather than (as should be the case) a means of identifying needs and outcomes to be pursued, the actions and options available for meeting those needs and achieving those outcomes and, ideally, talking with specialist VCS organisations about both what is needed and what the VCS might be able to offer. Consequently, the expertise and the representative voice for communities and service users that the VCS can offer is lost. Far too many in the public sector seemingly refuse to acknowledge or hear this voice; and, equally, they seemingly do not wish to distinguish between contracting with a multinational corporate or even a large national charity and partnering with a local community group. The situation has been deteriorating progressively over the past few decades, but has demonstratively become worse as austerity has bitten ever harder
That said, there are hints of change. A few local authorities and others appear to be breaking out of the competitive contracting straitjacket and mindset, though they are still very much in the minority. The VCS must help to support this change to gain further momentum. Specifically, we must demonstrate that we can offer viable solutions but can usually do this better when not subject to competitive tendering.
The growth of community enterprises raises further opportunities for the public sector to support community-based organisations to deliver public services. Such enterprises, community and worker-led co-operatives and, in some cases, local socially-driven small and medium enterprises can make valuable contributions to communities. This wider range of social bodies can complement (though not replace) the more traditional VCS bodies.
Our ambition should be for local authorities and other local public bodies (including clinical commissioning groups) to reset their relationships with the local VCS.
To that end, local public bodies should:
- Move on from competitive tendering and contracting, and adopt relational partnering when working with the VCS.
- Respect the right of VCS groups to speak up and to speak out for their beneficiaries and communities, including challenging public sector policy and underpinning ideologies; and acknowledge that advocacy, influencing and campaigning are fundamental VCS roles and duties.
- Involve the VCS in all strategic commissioning, policy development and budget decisions so they can benefit from specialist and representative VCS organisations’ understanding of local needs and the best means of addressing them, including what role the sector might be able to play and on what terms.
- Acknowledge that the VCS can complement publicly managed public services, but should never be expected or forced to be a surrogate for properly funded, high-quality, publicly run services.
- Support local VCS infrastructure bodies, which in turn can represent and support these local organisations – and support only those organisations that are democratically representative of and accountable to their local VCS members. The VCS should select local infrastructure bodies , not the public sector.
And for their part, the national VCS infrastructure and membership bodies should not flinch from leading the national debate, while supporting local VCS infrastructure bodies and others to act locally (as chair of Navca, I can report that this is one of our core objectives). And we would certainly benefit from consistent voices with a common argument.
I understand why our sector currently takes much time to argue for improved procurement and commissioning, but unless we challenge the neo-liberal agenda of markets and competition, we will continue to be damaged by this agenda. And, what is worse, so will those communities we exist to represent and serve.
I fervently believe that it is time to call time on the marketisation of public services.
John Tizard (@johntizard) is an independent strategic adviser and commentator, and chair of Navca