Civil Society Support in Practice

The report by IPPR North Civil Society Support in the North was published as part of a three-year programme of work by IPPR North on the state of civil society and the voluntary sector in the North of England. 

The report’s focus is on the need for civil society support organisations to adapt to our new world, in which the role of public sector bodies is changing; the north/south divide is increasing; and welfare reform and austerity is having a significant impact on the VCSE and their beneficiairies.

Not surprisingly the report highlights that civil society support varies tremendously across the north in both quality and range of support available, with capacity, culture and funding influencing the offer.

Drawing on conversations with stakeholders, as well as case study examples of what good practice looks like, the report sets out what role civil society support organisations can play in a good society. 

The report recommends that local civil society support organisations (such as local infrastructure bodies) adopt a more collaborative approach to support roles at all scales from neighbourhood to combined authority/regional level including:

1. as a leader, by identifying the needs of their local area and directing influence and resources to address priorities
2. As a broker, building strong relationships between organisations within civil society and beyond, including with the private sector
3. as a platform, to encourage and develop new forms of participation and collaboration within civil society
4. as a systems changer, to challenge and co-design new ways of working with public services
5. as a champion, to amplify the voice of civil society in their area.

I would argue that infrastructure bodies such as VONNE and local infrastructure organisations/ development agencies are operating in the roles identified by the report but that capacity (usually driven by funding) and relationships with external stakeholders heavily influence the degree to which this is effective. 

The quality and nature of relationships with external public sector bodies and funders is crucial in determining the status and influence of local support organisations.

In the North East we have seen at least two areas where the local infrastructure organisations’ relationship with their local authority deteriorated, and ultimately contributed to their demise. Investing time in nurturing relationships with key external stakeholders particularly at this time of austerity and reduced resources is essential albeit time consuming.

Increasingly a consensus is growing that, in order to help build healthier and more productive local areas, civil society support organisations need to work much more collaboratively. A good example of this is the Volunteer Coordinators’ Forum in County Durham.  The membership of 121 cross sector agencies and organisations has developed a Volunteer Kite mark which bench marks good practice for organisations who use volunteers. 

LIO’s across the region are in the process of exploring options to roll the model out across areas outside of County Durham to encourage consistency in good volunteering practice. Work has started to model and adopt the Kite mark in Tees Valley and further development /consultation is planned for Newcastle, Gateshead, Tyneside, Sunderland and Northumberland.

Independent funders have come together in the North East Funders Network, supported by VONNE, to share information and explore collaboration to ensure more effective targeting and maximisation of the impact of their funding. This includes work with public sector funders to develop collaborative models for funding local civil society support.

Public sector leaders and commissioners are starting to engage in conversations, and in some cases take action towards co-production, with VCSE partners in commissioning services; recognising that new approaches and attitudes are required.

The report recommends public sector bodies make a long-term commitment to resourcing for civil society support and develop a specific ‘offer’ to civil society.  An example of this in operation is VONNE working with local infrastructure organisations in Tees Valley and developing a VCSE forum and a partnership working agreement with the Tees Valley Combined Authority. Time will tell if there is a real commitment to embedding the VCSE in decision making structures.

IPPR North also recommends public sector bodies review data-sharing protocols and practices to understand where they constitute barriers to deeper and more meaningful collaboration. 

However, I would argue that this should go beyond data sharing barriers and address fundamental commissioning and procurement barriers which inhibit opportunities for VCSE, particularly smaller place based VCSE, to co-produce, collaborate and deliver public services. 

Until we see a proportionate and reasonable adjustment in procurement and contracting practice we will not see any great shift in commissioning practice on the ground. Hopefully infrastructure organisations such as VONNE can continue to act in the role as a systems changer, and challenge and co-design new ways of working with public services.