The undefined,  little understood election catchphrase ‘Big Society’ is, it would seem, the hope for the Voluntary Sector of the future.  With the promise of new measures implemented by Autumn the government has announced that they will be giving greater scope to social enterprises, charities and cooperatives, with new roles given to the sector for the running of public services.

Enhancing the role of the Voluntary Sector is good news.  I hope that it will be combined with an increased willingness to listen to and invest in the sector.   The coalition government said that radical reform of public services are needed and voluntary sector organisations were one means by which to improve outcomes and reduce the national debt. Certainly we can demonstrate positive outcomes: Outcomes with a local flavour, long term outcomes, outcomes for the whole person and not limited to the outputs of an isolated service.  But is it really an appreciation for our enhanced outcomes that is informing this change in strategy?

I suspect that the overarching motive is a financial one.  The change that is being described is an opening of access for Voluntary Sector organisations to bid to run public services,  “Barriers to involvement will be identified and measures will be implemented,” the statement from Number 10 said.

I used to run a supported housing project for young homeless people.  The service was an 18 bed medium support project.  Its residents were 16 year olds exiting the care system, 18 year olds leaving young offender institutes, young people who were highly vulnerable and had experienced a lack of consistent care in their lives. As a manager of a voluntary sector organisation my priority was on the quality of service we provided.  To quote the 2002 Government report, we were committed to providing ‘more than a roof’, we wanted to help nurture the whole person, to increase aspirations, to increase opportunities, to assist in them becoming socially mobile, motivated and achieving, to signpost them as they sought to build positive relationships, engage with local networks, become independent, and fundamentally, to ensure that the home we were providing was a safe and thriving environment for them to live in.  Our primary driver was best quality, this is not always synonymous with best price.  Increasingly I saw services handed over to the provider who would run it for the smallest price, too often price seemed to win out over quality.

Over the past few years government have had to acknowledge that public services cost.  At a moment where recovering the nations finances take primary focus it is understandable that the state is looking to save money wherever it can.  This is why the Voluntary Sector would do well to be cautious. Opening procurement processes to ensure the Voluntary Sector is enabled to take a bigger role is well and good, but in an environment in which tenders are awarded based on best value the voluntary sector must resist the allure of winning contracts and expanding their reach at the price of  compromising the quality of their service delivery in order to reduce costs.  If we give in to this temptation, the Voluntary Sector may well be known for its part in building a failed and fragmented society rather than a stronger Big Society.

The Voluntary Sector does not exist to compete on price with government in the delivery of services, we exist to be a prophetic voice, speaking out to protect the rights and wellbeing of those facing disadvantage, we speak to government not for government. At this time Id suggests the Voluntary Sector should be proud of its ability to deliver, but as increasing opportunities are presented, approach them with a dogged determination to preserve quality, not seek to win contracts at any cost.  A truly strong society requires investment in public services and investment in community projects, let’s be the voice reminding government of this, not the donkey who bears the burden of diminished funding for key services.

Nancy Doyle is the Faithworks teamleader

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