Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Cameron Plan

If you want to know what Cameron's vision of the future for public services looks like you could do a lot worse than to read this BBC news piece

The plan isn't a particularly revolutionary one; it's more of a continuation down the path we started out on with the 1990 NHS and Community Care Act. The legislation which instituted the purchaser provider split.

The state, under Cameron's plan becomes like a referee. Its role setting out and enforcing the rules which govern interactions between all the players. If you want to know how this will work the model is taken from the utility privitisations where the states continued interests are represented by industry regulators such as Ofgem

Putting such a system in place is no real practical challenge, but it is a philosophical one. The chief issue is what happens to the public service ethos, can it survive a run in with the profit motive?

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

What if..... the 'Big Society' worked

Just for a second, if I shut my eyes tightly enough, I can imagine a world where the 'Big Society' works (This is despite coming to the end of the excellent 'The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone' which convincingly argues that the level of inequality in the UK and U.S is a major impediment for a sharing and cooperative society). Yes, I can force myself into a state of optimism. I can see innovations like the Ministry of Stories and other stories of individuals and groups being creatively empowered to improved services.

It seems to me that we are all too focused on the many reasons why the 'Big Society' will not work that we are failing to considering what will happen if it does work.
When I say 'work' this is of course somewhat subjective as if the plan does take off I am far from optimistic.

The reason for this is that there are two visions of what may happen if the 'Big Society' idea really gets off the ground. The first is the vision of 'bungling amateurs' which Francis Maude may be relaxed about, but as someone with five years experience in social care I can say I am definately terrified about. Even providing basic services is a complex matter and if something either goes wrong, or more likely something is omitted then the consequences can be dire indeed.

It is however, not just failiure that is the problem. Success is perhaps an even bigger issue for the 'Big Society'. According to the market logic of the likes of Maude, good services will flourish whilst poor ones will disappear through lack of demand. That this can be a problem may seem counter-intuitive; after all if services improve that can only be a good thing, right? The problem though is that when it comes to applying the supply and demand economics of the market to the voluntary and community sector there is a key difference. As Harvard Business School academics James Austin, Howard Stevenson and Jane Wei-Skillern point out both sectors have very different opportunity structures:

In comparing the nature of opportunities in the commercial and social sectors, clearly, there are abundant opportunities in the latter relative to the former. The demand for social entrepreneurial programmes and services usually far exceed the capacity of the social enterprises to serve these needs. Initial successes often lead to increased demand for the social enterprise's programmes, products or services, or even requests to scale or replicate the organization in some form. For many employees and for the outside funders, the growth imperitive often becomes paramount.

So unlike the commercial sector the demmand for services provided by the voluntary and community sector is virtually unlimited. On the face of it this would seem to suggest the need for an initiative like the 'Big Society', but the academics warn the pressures to meet the sheer scale of demand can be detrimental to voluntary and community organisations:

In some cases, growth may not be the best approach to achieve the organization's goals or to have the greatest social impact. Growth for the sake of growth has the potential to squander organizational resources and can actually detract from the organization's overall impact.

This leaves succesful organisations in a bind. Although Austin, Stevenson and Wei-Skillern are not saying that growth is intrinsically a bad thing, they provide a reminder that growth is not necessarily a logical outcome for a succesful organisation. This suggestion ties in with the view expressed by former Shelter Chief Executive Adam Sampson that some charities had grown too large, buracratic, commercial and in the process distant from their beneficiaries in a way which was threatening to undermine the sectors claims to distinctiveness.

This issue boils down to this. If voluntary organisations grow they may in the process of restructuring lose what it was which made them succesful in the first place, but if they choose to remain the same size they must cope with huge levels of demand which they could not possibly hope to meet. How do voluntary organizations cope with excess demand? The market mechanism of increasing price is out of reach to them, so they must choose between having a huge waiting list or develop criteria. The role of the criteria is simply to discriminate between who receives a service and who does not. This could be based on an assessment of need, on geographic residence criteria, financial circumstances, or any other combination of measurable characteristics. In some circumstances criteria my be formal, but in some cases it has been shown that informal arbitary rationing criteria have been used by voluntary ortganisations keen to safeguard limited resources.

What this all leaves is an opaque system where a person in need must approach multiple organisations and satisfy various sets of criteria, becoming as one academic, Caroline Knowles, referred to as "welfare Nomads"; persons spending the day wandering from location to location to piece together a patchwork quilt of support.

Set this against a backdrop of a welfare-state in retreat and you have a potentially toxic combination should the 'Big Society' actually work.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Big Society Fortnight

I've decided that this is now going to be big society fortnight(backdated to last week). It's been a such a long time since I've had so much to say on one topic and I know I'm not the only one as apparently at the Uni some big-name academics also came together to hold a debate. When I heard this I reflected that it was curious why we're all now devoting so much time to what most of us seem to beleive was just an election gimmick, but here we are and the discussion goes on....

It seems that all of us, even Dave himself, reached a consensus last week; namely that the cuts dished out to the voluntary and community sector by town halls across the country seemed to be anomolous to the aims of the 'big society' programme.

Sensing that the policy was on the verge of turning on its heels and running, to be ruthlesley pursued by the oppositions cavalry it seems the Government will this week be attempting to set a rallying point. Some of the details which have been announced featured in the Guardian over the weekend. Though I am tempted to pick it apart in minute detail I will restrict myself to commenting briefly on the main features.

Firstly there is the announcement that a £100m fund will be available to enable "charities" and "social enterprises" to "compete" for government contracts. Also available will be £200 million in loans from high street banks.

My first impression is, what's new? This is something which was being done under the last Government through programmes such as Change Up and Futurebuilders. I also wonder how the £100 million figure measures up to the cutbacks. As I have previously mentioned in my area alone £400k is expected to be shaved off the main Day Care services contract(currently provided by a nonprofit) alongside 700k or so in funding for voluntary sector organisations in the area. These figures are also per year, it is not clear in the article how many years the £100 million will be spread over. The Guardian piece does rather well in dealing with the issue of the £200 million from the banks, which it states will be on a commercial basis, and again, what's particularly new about this? There has been nothing stopping a non-profit organisation seeking finance in this way before.

A key feature of Cameron's defence of the big society has been how it embodies a philosophy of bottom-up as opposed to top-down action. Leaving aside the fact that this is quite a paradox for a policy being pushed by central government I wonder how the above funding arrangements fit with this philosophy. The reason I ask this is that the current round of local government cuts are likely to bring into question the viability of small locally based voluntary organisations as opposed to large regional or national organisations which will have more diverse funding streams. It is these small organisations which are often credited with being closer to their beneficiaries wheras larger organisations have been critiqued for becoming too buracratic and distant from their beneficiaries I also wonder how shifting the decisions over which charities to fund from democratically elected local authourities to high street banks and central government quangos is in keeping with the bottom-up philosophy?

Something which also seems to run counter to this is the whole process surrounding the 5000 'big society' workers and the establishing of what looks like a central college with what seems to be remit for deciding on a curriculum for a set of community work qualifications. All this at a time when Community Development Workers across the country are in fear of their jobs and department budgets. If this does not smack of top-down centralisation I really don't know what does!

Monday, 7 February 2011

BBC on the Big Society

It amused me to come across this article on the BBC website as it makes some very similar points on the big society to those appearing on the pages of this very blog and comments I have made elsewhere!

The general theme of the piece is that whilst Government is encouraging the idea that the voluntary sector should play an increasingly prominent role in delivering services Local Government budget cuts are actually undermining the capacity of the sector to be able to deliver.

Especially interesting is the following passage dealing with the Governments response to these points:

Asked about the criticism that there was no strategic plan, Cabinet Office mnister Francis Maude told the BBC: "We're not going to dictate from the centre what every local authority should do. They must be accountable to their local communities."

He said three quarters of voluntary organisations got no state funding so would not be affected by council cuts.

Firstly this seems like a clear case of buck passing. Having worked for a local authourity in the past it was clear to me that Local Authorities have very little room for maneuvre. Most of what they do is prescribed by statute or dictated by central-governemt. With barely enough funding to do what is required of them Local Councils main concern is simply one of survival; a case of figuring how to put food on the plate, not making an informed choice between steak and chips or cod and chips. In other words local authourities whatever their persuasion or outlook will seek to cut soft targets; libraries and funding for local voluntary organisations.

The second point I really must take issue with is the figure quoted that 3/4 of voluntary organisations receive no state funding. This may be true, but it does not account for the size of voluntary organisations which vary enourmously from a one room operation consisting of a handful of people, to a national organisation such as Shelter, or a multinational like Greenpeace. Organisations also do differnt activities in different policy areas; not all directly provide services, some provide office support to other organisations, some engage in advocacy and others may act as umbrella groups. So it is not really possible to compare organisations on an individual basis. It may well be more likely that it is the organisations most involved with service provision that are in receipt of state funding.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

The 'big society': Returning to the 1970s

It's been a tough week for the 'big society' first Lord Wei the man dubbed the 'big society Tszar' finds that volunteering is incompatable with the pressures of work and family life, but perhaps more importantly it seems charities will be hit hard by cuts made by local authourities.

The importance of central and local government funding of the voluntary sector cannot be understated. It has been this which has been the key driver behind the sectors growth for over a decade not other factors such as the scale of volunteering which has in some instances actually been in decline according to the academic Ingo Bode.

As I mentioned in my previous post in my area the outlook for the voluntary sector couldn't appear any more grim with the authourity itself recognising the devestating impact their cuts are likely to have on the sector.

"All voluntary sector contracts which are identified as providing non
statutory preventative services are included and will be ended. The
loss of these services will impact on later costs where early
intervention would have reduced service need. Such cuts may
result in some organisations becoming unviable which will impact
on their use by other areas of the Council and partner

Day Care in my area is a great example of this, currently the bulk of the Day Care service is provided by a nonprofit organisation who are contracted by the authourity. This funding is likely to be cut to the tune of £400k. Another organisation which runs and Asian elders day centre also faces the total withdrawl of their funding.

How likely is it that voluntary organisations will make up the shortfall and be able to survive on the resources of the community and volunteers alone? Even if their survival were ensured could current standards and levels of provision be maintained, or would voluntary organisations need to strictly ration access to their services.

The ideal of the big society with its strong appeal to nostalgia may point to a time when communities, individuals and groups did come together to provide services, but such nostalgia is misplaced. As ACEVO chief Stephen Bubb pointed out government funding and an increasingly professional voluntary sector have been responsible for raising standards. It is, as Bubb mentions, quite right that we would not wish to return to the kind of services provided in the 1970s.

With cuts in government funding to the voluntary sector this though is exactly what the 'big society' will mean.