Will new proposal provide opportunities for small charities?

Like many small charities, we are now waiting to hear how the government will roll out its proposal announced last month to ‘put small charities at the heart of public services.’

The programme’s aims seem to be to help improve public services, involving local people at a local level to tackle a wealth of issues in our communities.

The government’s measures include the introduction of a Public Service Incubator which will help commissioners to work more closely with small and front line charities to develop ways of overcoming the barriers to public service commissioning, along with collecting evidence of best practice. Nick Davies from NCVO said it could help develop the relationships between small charities and commissioners, creating more opportunities for small charities to shape the design and delivery of local services. However, we know from children’s services feedback that there is not necessarily a lack of relationships with small charities or a lack of understanding that they can help improve local services, but that there is often a lack of innovation towards commissioning in public services and rigid outcome measurements that can hinder the awarding of contracts to small charities. For example, we have introduced a Theory of Change model to Safe and Sound, ensuring that our activities and actions are governed by our aims which in turn promotes more efficient working. This has provided direction for what and how we measure, including the outcomes that help us to demonstrate our social impact and the wider social return on investment in specialist services from the voluntary sector. We know that this model is used widely in the voluntary sector, but public service contract models may not always accept this as a way of working or measuring outcomes.

Something we would like to see fed into the introduction of the Public Service Incubator in terms of best practice is a change to the criteria in commissioning contracts that can often be restricting for small charities and encourage under-cutting practice by non-specialist organisations who need the funding to continue operating, or those with larger public funding and resource, but without the local knowledge or specialist remit. We hope the programme will find a way to look at the scoring in contracts that may be awarded to small charities to help them to be considered in the race. It is hoped that the ‘incubator’ process and the improved relationships it is envisaged to develop, will bring more understanding to commissioners about the difficulties rigid commissioning practices cause smaller charities and of the unmonitored additional benefits of using local services, that understand local circumstances, environments and have already got working networks and relationships in place.

The introduction of a commissioning kitemark to reflect best practice in public services and commitment to small charity commissioning is another aim of the programme, though it’s unsure how public services will be encouraged to attain this and what direct benefits it might offer commissioners. The kitemark acting as a visible commitment to best practice and innovative commissioning will not necessarily overcome some of the concerns that public service commissioners have with awarding contracts to smaller charities. A recommendation of this kind would need to have some real commitment behind it from the government in order for it to be successfully implemented on a national scale and ideally would come into play following the joint working outcomes of the Incubator.

Finally the programme aims to recruit a crown representative to champion these issues and act as an intermediary between government and the voluntary sector when it comes to commissioning. Nick Davies from NCVO says that a crown representative could help offer a clear route for small charities to raise issues of poor commissioning practice with the government. Whilst we agree, we also know that the process of cultural  change as a result of raising these issues will not come quickly and that a national representative, will not necessarily help with the local picture of commissioning, or at least not until the programme is well embedded.

Some of the issues for commissioners when awarding contracts to small charities are likely to be scale and efficiency related which is perfectly understandable. However, this approach can sometimes overlook the longevity, expertise and local knowledge demonstrated by some fantastic charities with turnovers under £1 million. With many public services so under resourced across the country, a willingness to work with grass roots charities who are often reaching and engaging with some of the most vulnerable yet overlooked people in society would help alleviate some of those local funding pressures we hear so much about.

Safe and Sound has experience of public service supply chains, specifically in relation to children and young people at risk of and affected by exploitation, sexual violence and abuse. Last week, we facilitated a workshop for commissioners of child sexual exploitation services for them to share best practice, so we are fully on board with the programme’s aims to improve collaboration and build relationships with relevant commissioners.

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