There is significant debate on the national stage at present about whether the provision of VCS infrastructure services, ie support services to frontline charities, communities and social enterprises etc, should be ‘demand led’ and if so how and whether provision of such services should be a ‘free market’. So, here is a local contribution to that discussion.
At face value the answer to both questions is ‘of course it should be’. There is no point in providing any service for which there is no demand and highest priorities should be given to greatest demand. If there is no competition in the marketplace then there is no motivation to deliver a responsive, high quality service. A good few of us are long enough in the tooth to know what infrastructure service which is neither ‘demand led’ nor subject to ‘market forces’ looks like and we do not want to go there.
However, that is a bit superficial because there is much more subtlety in the debate. The fundamental question of the moment whether grant funders should cease putting money into VCS infrastructure organisations altogether and give all funding to frontline organisations who will then be free to spend money on the infrastructure services they need but with a free market approach. There is talk of ‘voucher schemes’ for infrastructure services in place of funding, where vouchers can be ‘spent’ with a any infrastructure service on a qualified provider list.
This sounds like a good idea and up to a point it is. If a funder gives a charity a grant to undertake a project and that organisation needs a pre-planned element of infrastructure support as part of the project’s planning and set up phases, then it must be free to go to the ‘best value qualified provider’ to use that money effectively and responsibly.
As a key infrastructure service supplier in Solihull, we neither expect nor seek a monopoly and we expect to compete and have sufficient confidence in the quality of support that we give and the level of outcomes that we achieve to hold our heads up in the marketplace.
The ‘voucher scheme’ idea, though, is a bit of a side show. It is clearly being proposed to keep ‘cowboy providers’ at bay. If anyone, long on talk and short on relevant experience, can pitch up and provide an infrastructure service, take the money and be over the hill before the dust settles, that would not be a sound use of precious grant funds. But a ‘voucher scheme’ will be an additional administrative burden. There are established standards in the industry and recognised national bodies and this infrastructure could readily be formalised a bit more to solve the problem without ‘vouchers’. At home, you cannot spend money to have your gas pipes tinkered with by any old hack, CORGI registration is demanded. Similar principles could apply here.
The question then is could all infrastructure service be handled this way and all direct funding from infrastructure be withdrawn. Our answer is no.
The reality is that the provision discussed above is just one element of the total infrastructure provision. There is a question mark over whether this particular approach is compatible with the remainder, which includes Workforce Development, Capacity Building, Network Development, Communications, Brokering, Promotion, Representation and Consultation.
So, take out of this services which SUSTAiN currently delivers as part of our Service level Agreement with the Council on behalf of our local VCS, such as compiling and distributing the SUSTAiN Alerts and maintaining the network through which it is distributed, organising and staging the annual VCS Conference, running the Volunteer Centre, running development Workshops in response to demand, brokering Private Sector support and providing a representative voice to the Strategic Partnership. Could any of these be efficiently and effectively provided on a competitive basis?
Then a few further questions:
- Without a core infrastructure provision, how many emerging groups would actually get off the ground and would infrastructure provision be fair and equitable, consistent with the principles of equality and diversity?
- Without a core infrastructure provision, how many opportunities to connect groups with common interests together would be realised?
- Without a core infrastructure provision, how many hours would organisations waste dealing with speculative phone calls from competing providers and other attempts to sell unwanted sevices?
Finally, I want to focus on what for me is key concern about a potential move away from core provision, illustrating it with the work Alan Crawford has done since he joined SUSTAiN to provide specialist funding support. So far, Alan has supported community groups and charities to make 171 funding applications of which 101 have been successful so far. With 47 still pending that is an 81% success rate which has brought £627,936 in funding in total to those organisations.
Would the same achievement level be accrued by a range of different providers, some from out of borough, on a voucher scheme. Given that local knowledge and a grasp of who else is looking for funds, for what and from whom are key elements of the task, we somehow doubt it.
We believe that the current approach of having a core service and tendering it periodically on a competitive basis is the right one. However, what do you think?