At a recent meeting of the Erewash Voluntary Sector Forum, held in Long Eaton, I led a discussion on public services commissioning and how local voluntary organisations can influence commissioners in favour of the people we serve. This was a welcome opportunity to meet leaders from charities that provide social care and advice services in this Derbyshire district with its population of 113,000 people living in former mining towns such as Ilkeston.
Issues raised included the inadequacy of most consultation processes, the short length of many contracts and the failure to implement the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012. There was also a perceived failure to use grant funding, despite guidance from NHS England to clinical commissioning groups that "grant funding is a vital part of the funding mix within a local health economy". Everyone agreed that there was nowhere to discuss issues of this kind with commissioners.
Inevitably we spent some time on the Compact. The tone was weary. It is seen by many as a spent force and local charity leaders in Erewash dismissed it as an instrument for good times that had failed to stop cuts in funding by the county council. Stella Scott, chief executive of Erewash Voluntary Action, told me: "The Compact has been on the shelf gathering dust here for a long time now." I argued that blaming the Compact for not stopping funding cuts was to misunderstand its potential. Even judicial reviews and challenges based on statutory instruments such as the equality duty have failed to stop the cuts juggernaut. But the Compact can offer the basis for a conversation with politicians and commissioners. It gives local councillors an opportunity to present themselves as friends of voluntary organisations. It also offers commissioners some attractive guarantees: for example, about the local sector's need to base its advocacy work on good quality consultation procedures. So I urged Erewash forum members to look again at the Compact.
Some complained that local commissioners took lazy routes to understanding local needs by consulting only those organisations they had funded for years. New providers do not enjoy the access to the commissioning process that the "usual suspects" do. What's more, specialist organisations are often overlooked in favour of larger bodies that can deliver bigger, more generic services.
I argued that these were the sorts of challenges that the Compact could address. The outcome could be a voluntary sector commissioning strategy.
Infrastructure charities such as Erewash Voluntary Action, which organised the forum meeting, should not dismiss the Compact, but create new opportunities for funders and providers to come together to address this complex agenda.
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser