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.

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Council Budgets and Public Wellbeing

The Tory government continues to cut public sector budgets. In particular, the amount of money available to councils has been reduced and continues to be reduced. In response to this councils have been looking at ways to cut their budgets and reduce their costs while providing services in a way that is acceptable to the local population. Many have held budget consultations with local people about this. Some have gone so far as to look at restructuring the way the council works. All in an effort to balance the budget cuts versus service provision see-saw.

On top of this, while making cuts to council budgets, central government is issuing injunctions to maintain council services and releasing statements that give the impression there is plenty of money in council coffers. They have said, for example, that more than £3.5 billion has been made available to councils to support social care for the vulnerable and older people. At the same time and in the name of budget savings, many councils are commissioning inadequate services such as 15 minute social care visits. How much, you may ask, can be done in 15 minutes?

These central government actions are making things difficult for councils of every stripe. All the more reason for councils to include everyone involved and to think very carefully about the best possible ways to use all the available resources. This includes meeting with and listening to service users, residents and businesses in an on-going conversation. Apart from clearer budget setting, improved service design and better service provision, it is surely good PR to have the public on your side opposing central government cuts to their services.

So what is actually happening? Let’s look at one of the Core Cities, Newcastle upon Tyne. “Ambition in the Face of Austerity” sets out Newcastle City Council’s budget for 2016-17. It proposes reductions to budgets and cuts to services. These reductions and cuts appear alongside a set of broad principles and general commitments. There is, however, little connection between the principles and commitments, and the reductions and cuts.

Worse still, there is a gap between the council’s position and the people affected. “Ambition in the Face of Austerity” appears on the council’s website alongside a number of Integrated Impact Assessments and background documents. Taken together this documentation represents an internal service review. There is no place for people who use these services and no place for people living and working in Newcastle. This may seem surprising given the council’s role in governing, representing and being accountable to these very people. Take wellbeing and health, a major area of public concern. What the council documentation shows is that many wellbeing and health services are to be reduced and responsibility for the consequences is to be passed to health providers, community groups and families. Newcastle City Council no longer view local wellbeing and health as their responsibility.

Other councils have not taken such a ‘like it or lump it’ approach to their budget. Other councils have not decided that the wellbeing and health of their residents has nothing to do with them. Some have undertaken a revision of their approach to both budgeting and to budget consultation. Some have asked their public not ‘which services should we cut?’ but ‘how are we going to maintain and improve the services you need?’. By doing this they are able to reprofile their spending plans and reallocate their resources. Some councils have undertaken a whole systems review in order to reduce the impact of central government budget reductions and improve the suitability of the services they provide.

Considering the national situation and the necessity of public involvement it would be better for councils to think again and to reconsider their options. Indeed it would be better for the whole public sector to work with services users, residents, local groups and businesses to find both a different way of making budget savings and a better way of providing wellbeing and health services for local people.

The Care Act 2014: Easier Said Than Done

DL – Care Act April15

The Care Act 2014 is an important and difficult piece of legislation. The intention of the act is to give service users a choice over their care service provision. It also shifts the responsibility for care service provision from the public sector to individual service users.
So how is this working out? Well, as part of the Care Act, public sector bodies are expected to produce market position statements for the services they procure. This is a new procedure and consultations are taking place to determine what the statements will cover and the procedures that will take place.
Newcastle City Council, to take one example, is consulting about its draft Market Position Statement for information and advice, and advocacy. The document has already been drafted, presumably, by council staff.
This raises the question whether other public sector bodies will adopt the same old assumptive approach? Or will they take their communities seriously and carry out a genuine consultation?