Over the last few years and especially over the last seven months, when I have been visiting local voluntary and community sector (VCS) infrastructure organisations during my period as chair of Navca, I have been impressed by the role and contribution they make.
Of course, not every local VCS infrastructure body will be exemplary in all it does and sadly, some may have few (if any) exemplary features - but thankfully, I suspect the latter are in a very small minority.
I have come away from these visits and discussions with both practitioners and trustees from local infrastructure bodies have tended to generate some consistent ‘takeaways’, including:
- Whilst there are shared values and some core activities including support, development and voice for the VCS - there is in reality a wide diversity re: what these bodies do and how they do it; how they are funded; and their relationships with local authorities and other locally-based bodies.
- They are strongly resilient, and given what has happened to the funding for so very many over the last ten years, this has been critical to survival.
- Many feel that their local authorities no longer value their contribution to place-shaping, their representative and voice role, or their ability to act as an effective conduit to the wider sector.
- Many recognise (some desperately so) that they need help to make the case for supporting local VCS infrastructure to local authorities and other local organisations in both the public and business sectors.
‘We need a comprehensive, evidenced-based analytical prospectus for local VCS infrastructure’
I am convinced that what is needed is a comprehensive, evidenced-based analytical prospectus for local VCS infrastructure – and one which makes the most compelling case/narrative possible, for why it should be supported by local authorities and others.
Localism and the current political environment means that that there is no chance of any instruction or statutory guidance from central government to local public bodies, requiring them to work with and/or support local VCS infrastructure. And there is little likelihood of central government making grants to local authorities dependent on involving and supporting the VCS, as was often the case under New Labour. The arguments will have to be made and won locally, place by place but using a common platform shaped for the local place.
Whilst there is merit in seeking central government, opposition party and LGA endorsement for such a prospectus and the arguments on which it is based but they will not proscribe what should happen locally.
More than a set of case studies
What I have in mind is more than just a scrapbook of selected case studies and stories.
The core foundation of what I believe is needed is a set of arguments, which speak the language of and address the contemporary agenda of local government political leaders and senior executives, their counterparts in the NHS, local criminal justice system – and the local business sector too.
This will require either a short-term commission and/or commissioned research (time is of the essence, so I am not suggesting a long-winded exercise), which will harness economic, financial, demographic, social and environmental data and analysis to explain, cogently, why effective, well-resourced local VCS infrastructure can add value to local communities, local economies, the local environment and local public bodies, especially local government.
It will have to persuade austerity-constrained public bodies that contrary to their instincts, financially supporting local infrastructure is in fact cost beneficial and in the public interest. Not an easy task, I know, but in my opinion, we dare not flinch from taking up this challenge.
Critically, in an open and non-defensive manner, the inquiry and research should also harness evidence to address the benefits (and possibly dis-benefits) to local authorities and others of recognising the collective sector voice of local infrastructure bodies, and engaging them in policy and budget decisions, strategic commissioning and service design.
There would obviously be a need to consider what approaches tend to work best and why? And although not a case study-led exercise, some case studies of successful collaborative working (and some less-successful experiences) will need to be included to bring the report ‘alive’, and to share best practice. Regarding the latter, there could also be an exploration of how national sector bodies should be sharing best practice and lessons learnt.
If we don’t make the case local infrastructure will weaken
I would make the case for any commission and/or research to explore the value to local businesses, when they work with and support local VCS infrastructure - and not solely local service charities (important as this is).
I am a passionate advocate of local social action, and believe that this flourishes best when there is effective local VCS infrastructure. However, unless and until we actually set out and resolutely make a compelling and comprehensive case for local VCS infrastructure, the reality is that it will be ever weaker.
John Tizard is an independent strategic advisor and commentator. He is currently a trustee and charity chair and chair of a CIC. Until recently he was chair of Navca.