The Token Northener, service logic and system insanity - Feedback from my Downing Street Voluntary Sector Roundtable

Last week as I was invited by Barrow Cadbury Trust to be part of a select group of VCSE reps to attend a roundtable a No.10 with Charlotte Lawson, special advisor to Theresa May on the third sector/government relations team. Apparently she was keen to meet real VCSE people and get a sense of innovation in the sector and is particularly interested in organisations at the smaller, more local end of the scale.  Barrow Cadbury ensured the make-up of the roundtable represented a broad cross section of the sector, albeit mainly infrastructure and people from different areas of the country - so I was the token northerner.

What surprised me somewhat is that rather than be talked at, Charlotte did actually sit and listen to us for an hour and a half and we didn’t hold back about the current challenges for the sector. We also stressed the changes in the nature of infrastructure support but also the weakening of infrastructure and how vital it is for a robust civil society.  We made impassioned pleas for improvements in commissioning including training for commissioners and procurement teams on understanding the sector and proportionate commissioning.

We highlighted the need for strengthening of the requirement to adhere to Social Value legislation and the challenges for smaller VCSE in collaborating within increasing large consortia driven by public sector procurement.  We talked about social investment and that ‘investment readiness’ resource should not be entirely focussed on securing social investment and there should be a focus on business development and readiness for the sector as a whole including those for whom social investment or trading would never be appropriate.  The phrase “service logic and system insanity” used by one of my colleagues resonated with all of us.

Charlotte said she took on board the comments about social value and commissioning and responded that there had been a  recognition that commissioning is not working for smaller voluntary organisations, highlighting  Rob Wilson’s announcement of support for smaller charities around commissioning through The Public Services Programme which ‘aims to enable more small charities to access the public service market.’ Government apparently sees accessing smaller charities expertise as a key route to improving public services, enabling local people to solve local problems and ensuring that everyone can access public services that effectively address their needs.

Let’s hope real resources follow this announcement as the Programme involves a commitment to ‘Developing a placed based Public Service Incubator that helps small charities get commissioned’. The scale of this and indeed the target area is unknown at this point. The Programme also refers to developing a Commissioning Kite Mark and a VCSE representative being recruited as a Crown Commissioner to centrally champion commissioning practices that help small charities contribute effectively to public services. 

Charlotte hinted that these measures were just the start and that there was more to come and was positive about the appointment of Sir Martyn Lewis CBE (not the money guy but the news reader guy!) former chairman of NCVO, who will chair a voluntary sector-led implementation group on these proposals, to put them into practice. He is quoted as saying ‘Strengthening collaboration between small charities and commissioners has long been the aim of many in the voluntary sector. I am encouraged that the government is keen to support this and look forward to leading an implementation group with that purpose.’

Charlotte also referred to discussions with DCMS, the new home for the Office for Civil society, about the importance of blended finance as a mechanism for supporting the journey to social investment and shared her thoughts about the importance of mapping where resources and cold spots are across the country which she is planning to take forward as a way of supporting civil society. On the way out she said she was making a visit to ‘the north’ and that she hoped that her people would ensure VCSE reps would be involved. The offer was made for VONNE to host a roundtable but I think at the very least I’ll be on the invite list for her visit and you never know we may well be able to influence the selection of place based incubator area/s.