The Privatisation of Poverty

It’s a brave person who declares the death of the voluntary sector but just look at what’s been happening.

Over the past few months I’ve been looking at the use of complexity approaches to social issues in urban settings. One clear message I am hearing is that traditional ways of tackling problems, such as local government interventions, simply aren’t making much difference.

One reason for this is that grant funding for community organisations is becoming a thing of the past. Local government sources of money and support have dried up with senior local figures now declaring that they don’t do that anymore. This shameful disavowal of responsibility means that local community organisations are either relying on volunteers or closing.

At the same time bigger organisations have secured large contracts that shut out smaller and more local organisations.If questioned, these bigger organisations often complain that they are having to compete with large private sector organisations and say that they are better than the private sector alternative.

This means that voluntary sector organisations that employ staff are having their funding squeezed or removed. The funders, sorry contractors, will pay according to the cheapest reasonable offer. The good old notions of best value and the contributions of social value are ignored in the fight to secure the biggest bang for the buck.

This also means the end of the voluntary sector group part-grant funded, part-volunteer run. These groups face a stark choice either to fold and be left with nothing or to opt for one of the private sector options such as the Community Interest Company or CIC (“kick”). CICs are in essence just like any other company but with certain breaks in recognition of their community contribution. ‘What community contribution?’ you may ask. Aren’t these people paid? Well yes they are. So what’s the difference between a CIC and a limited company? Nothing that directly benefits local communities, so far as I can see.

The march towards the removal of grant funded organisations continues and is nearing completion. People who could have volunteered for voluntary sector groups are now volunteering for private sector companies.

Since the Coalition government of 2010 grant funded organisations have faced two choices. The first is to go out of business either by ceasing activity or operating ‘below the radar’. The second is to somehow form themselves into private sector organisations such as CICs. This second choice, you will appreciate, is rather like telling a fish to ‘get on your bike’. Not surprisingly, very few local groups have managed this or at least managed this and retained their local specialisms.

Alongside the elimination of effective local community groups has been the economic rationalisation of larger groups. The most ‘successful’ of these groups have managed to secure enough funding to ‘save’ certain activities while diversifying and expanding their own business.

If we accept the value of local activity and the contribution of local people coming together for the betterment of society then we will find the resources not only to keep this going but to increase it over and over again. Don’t forget that it was David Cameron who praised the virtues of localism and his government that legislated to create legal powers for communities.

Before we get too misty eyed about Dave remember that he’s responsible for the very problem under discussion: The removal of local groups who help the poorest people in our communities by providing them with opportunities to improve their lives while treating them with decency and respect. That’s what this government is busy taking away.

So where can the money be found to carry out the necessary social activities that hold our communities together? Well the European Social Fund still provides a lot of funding for locally-run activities in places where they are needed. I’m not saying it’s perfect but it is an awful lot better than nothing. It’s interesting to see that no one on either side of the referendum debate, Remain or Leave, seems very keen to point this out. Nevertheless the European Union has a lot of money that could be used for investment in just the sort of local organisations that are desperately needed. Think about that when you put your cross in the box.

What’s Really Going On?

DL - Northumbria Research 2015

How Complexity Science Helps Us Understand Communities
Northumbria University Research Conference, 20 May 2015

The application of complexity concepts to communities gives a rich and accurate picture of the neighbourhoods examined. This includes those living and working in the local area, the organisations involved and the infrastructure that is present.
This differs from standard approaches by using the knowledge of those involved to build the evidence produced by the research. This is done by applying concepts taken from complexity science as ‘interaction’ and ‘emergence’.
These are used to place those living and working in a community at the centre of the investigation and analysis of the community. Asking these people about their experiences yields a powerful sense of place and shows the factors that really matter. This is exemplified here by two communities, one in the west and one in the east of Newcastle upon Tyne.
Social factors, such as trust and willingness, are found to determine the success or failure of community activities. Though present, economic factors are found to be less important. Such a finding differs from the standard economic approach to community analysis and intervention.
Listening to the people involved, and using a complexity informed approach produces an understanding of how a community works that may be built on to improve life for those living, working and visiting the area.

Good Intentions

DL NCVS – Good Intentions published March 2015

Good Intentions is a complexity-informed study of Neighbourhood-Based Organisations (NBOs) in Newcastle upon Tyne. It was published in March 2015 by Newcastle CVS.
NBOs are unique in many ways. They have the ability to engage with communities in a way that cannot be easily replicated by public or private sector organisations or larger charities.
NBOs do this because they often reflect the communities they work with. They do this by providing a way for local people to get involved, to bring their own knowledge and experience and tp develop new skills and confidence. NBOs provide a trusted source of support and advocacy when people experience difficulties. They are agile in responding to changes and issues affecting local communities.
However, many NBOs are themselves in a vulnerable position.
In 2012 Newcastle CVS published a report on NBOs working with young people. The report found NBOs at a pivotal moment, grappling with an increasing marketisation of public services and an accompanying commissioning regime that for many did not fit easily with their values and actions. For Good Intentions, NCVS asked me to revisit those NBOs to find out how their circumstances have changed and what has developed. Along the way, I made new contacts and formed new views that are included in the report.
Good Intentions finds NBOs continuing to provide support and opportunities for local people. Working through a number of emerging themes, the report reveals some NBOs are ill at ease with a continuing shift amongst public sector agencies to contracting. Grant funding remains important and is generally preferred to contracting or trading.
Good Intentions highlights the pressures in funding core costs and the challenge of participating in networks, forums and training, to stay informed and connected when many NBOs have only a small staff team. Good Intentions finds a determination amongst NBOs to continue even if this means turning to largely volunteer led activities. The risk here is that NBOs become further marginalised from contributing to citywide initiatives or maintaining up to date safeguarding practices.
Good Intentions finds that NBOs have largely rejected the drive from policy makers and to some extent funders for voluntary sector organisations to become deliverers of public services, adopt social enterprise models and embrace new funding mechanisms such as social finance. What NBOs are doing is holding close to the needs of communities and seeking to meet local needs on local people’s terms. This may place NBOs outside of current policy, practice and finance frameworks, and leave some facing a bleak future. The challenge for public sector agencies and other interested organisations is how to recognise the value of NBOs, support them to continue in the unique space they occupy and involve NBOs so that the expertise they have informs wider policy and practice.

What volunteering means to me?

I’ve been involved in volunteering for many years, both as a volunteer and working with and for voluntary and community organisations. I’ve always known how valuable it was and could, no doubt, have come up with various statistics on its contribution to GDP.
But my recent experiences have really brought home to me what it can mean for individuals.
Like many others in these austere times, last year I was faced with redundancy. I decided to take the opportunity to set up my own business while continuing my PhD studies.
Starting up a business and post-grad research can be lonely undertakings. It’s easy to become isolated.
Or it would have been if I hadn’t got more involved in volunteering too. Volunteering helps you stay connected.
My voluntary policy work for VONNE and Newcastle CVS has helped me keep up to date with the latest policy developments, refresh and extend my skills – and some new ones – and it’s helped me be part of a network of people whose knowledge and passion have helped me stay motivated.
Closer to home, I’ve become chair of my local community centre. It’s really important for people to feel connected to their community and local centres deliver these connections in spades.
It’s great to see volunteers of all ages and backgrounds helping their communities and gaining valuable skills. And now when I tell people how great volunteering can be for them, I can speak from the heart as well as the head.