At the same time the hard news about public services is not good. The Public Accounts Committee report in June on ‘the financial sustainability of local authorities‘ warned that cuts to local government spending could undermine councils. It thought some local authorities will not be able to balance their budgets. Central government cuts to local authorities will have amounted to over a quarter in real terms (£7.6bn) between 2011 and 2015. The Spending Review did not improve things – another 10% cut to local government.
The Conservative leader of North Yorkshire County Council, John Weighell, said that “key front line services…would now be gravely affected” (Yorkshire Post July 2013). Similarly, the Conservative leader of the Local Government Association, Sir Merrick Cockell, said that Spending Review cuts will lead to the ending of services and to the existence of some Councils their current form.
So, is all this a threat or opportunity for the voluntary sector?
I particularly like the ideas in the LGA’s publication ‘A glass half full‘ which says that we need an asset based model for improving services and well being. This approach “values the capacity, skill, knowledge, connections and potential in a community”. It moves from seeing problems to be fixed to understanding citizens as co-producers or assets. In similar territory, the recent LGiU report ‘Connected Localism‘ has essays about better public services and more powerful communities. In one of these “Connecting communities: neighbourhood empowerment”, it isonly in the closing section that there is a mention of working in partnership with the VCS.
I am really encouraged by the new approaches being discussed-they start to embody principles of community development and empowerment that have been missing. But ‘co-this’ and ‘co-that’ assume that there are two parties to be joined together. However, community assets (networks, volunteers, connections) are not like ready meals: you can’t just take them off the shelf when you need them. They need creating, nurturing and supporting. Indeed, it was the failure to recognise and acknowledge this that was one of the nails in the coffin of the Big Society.
In many of these proposals there is much talk about why co-production or community engagement are important, what they might mean but too little about how you do it.
At a time when trust in public institutions is at an all time low, when relationships and networks have been fractured or destroyed by endless re-organisations there is an urgent need to address the sort of cultural and organisational changes that might begin to shape new (or rather newly discovered) ways to work with people and communities.
Things like improving the gender balance at the top of local and central government…and many of the bigger charities.
The voluntary and community sector, at its best, can help here because we are trusted and we have long experience of involving people and helping them to have a voice in organised ways. We are the connectors linking public bodies with the public and making co-production a reality.
Cultural change will affect us too. The changes outlined here have a strong local flavour, whatever the reality. But some of the larger charities seem to have lost their local connections and understanding. They could be powerful advocates for involvement and shaping services to meet needs, though this requires knowing what’s happening on the ground and what communities want.
I wonder about the local voluntary sector’s previous assumptions, for example, about staffing. Will there be many fewer contracts and, for most voluntary and community organisations, much more collaborative action with the local authority or health body on the basis of a shared and a jointly developed understanding of a community’s needs and resources? Perhaps local authorities will share some assets, provide small grants, and voluntary and community organisations add volunteers and some charitable resources?
Austerity will force this sort of re-think and maybe better practice should demand it.