Optimism amid the dark cloud on the Big Society frontline
Discussion at recent Big Society seminars we've held led me to believe there was a hardening of opinion within the voluntary and community sector as people prepared for a battle for survival. While that may still be a true reflection the way things are going, the session in Leicester seemed to buck the trend. Of course there was talk of cuts and the challenges these bring, but people were also looking for opportunities, seeking new ways of working and fully aware of the massive changes that are coming.
One woman from a charity that delivers training and welfare to work services to marginalised people explained how her organisation was facing almost weekly cuts to their funding. £60,000 was being cut this week, £60,000 last week from DWP welfare to work contracts and reductions in the benefits of their service users will further erode their funding. And yet, in the same breath, she talked about developing a new business model, exploring how they could use social impact bonds and opportunities to employ their service users. This highlights the mood perfectly - cuts are coming whether we like it or not, but, for some that adapt there will be opportunities too.
A number of people talked passionately about the impact of their cuts on their service users and beneficiaries - not the organisations they run, but the people they serve. Quite right too as the privilege of charitable status is based on serving our beneficiaries' needs. Unfortunately this attitude is not always as universally evident as one might expect in the not for profit sector. I can't help thinking that this attitude will stand them in good stead to respond to the undoubted challenges they face.
There was also a healthy dose of pragmatism injected into the debate. The cuts may be bad (and how bad we don't yet know), but however bad it gets, it's what we've got and we need to make the best of the situation we can. Sometimes the sector is disparagingly characterised as a ‘bunch of moaners', but for one of our real strengths is a ‘never say die' spirit and an ability to thrive on adversity. We owe it to our beneficiaries to ‘keep on keeping on' whatever life (and government) throws at us.
There is a risk, that in speaking in general terms, we overlook the major differences in how spending cuts will affect different parts of the sector (and of course, different groups in society too). Small community groups who have received little or no public funding may find themselves better off (or at least no worse off). Those who deliver public services will be hit - as the example of the DWP contract above illustrates - but there will also be new contracts to bid for and opportunities too (for those with the will and sufficient scale), provided they can adapt and change. For those who provide services to support other voluntary and community groups (whisper it quietly....infrastructure bodies), the prospects seem to rely on the preparedness of local government to make continued investment.
I get the impression that the government regards voluntary sector infrastructure in much the same way that it views middle managers in the NHS - as an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy that can easily be chopped in the pursuit of efficiency. This view needs to be challenged, as without the support and network building that good infrastructure brings, we cannot hope to achieve the strategic and effective deployment of resources. That is not to say that every pound spent on infrastructure over recent times has provided value for money - it's been a mixed bag, if we're being honest. But without collaboration and coordination across the sector, isolation and parochialism will undermine strategic policy making and create a culture of competition between groups and neighbourhoods.
Change is coming and we can either adapt and renew our organisations and institutions, to respond to contemporary needs, or we can hold on to a bygone era as the opportunities pass us by. We can stop delivering the target driven services that have skewed our work in ways that have impacted on our ability to deliver holistic solutions that are meaningful for people in need. We can walk away from doing things that don't make sense anymore. We can liberate ourselves...maybe? Well, at least we can try. Who wants to die wondering ‘what if....?'