OCS’s actions speak louder than words and the story they tell is disturbing

News of the Office for Civil Society’s (OCS) strategic partners programme was finally confirmed yesterday, just a week before the current programme is due to end. They announced that nine bids (and 17 organisations) will receive funding to represent the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector to government and help support the Big Society.

Once OCS had announced the criteria for the programme, following a consultation before Christmas (the results of which have still to be published!) there were always going to be a great number of losers.

They said they would be reducing the funding available to the programme and reducing the number of strategic partners from 42 down to (a seemingly arbitrary) ‘up to 15’. They also said the scheme would only be open to organisations with a national membership and to those who did not deliver services to the public.

Urban Forum is one of those that has been unsuccessful and obviously we are disappointed, as we felt our offer to government was very strong and represented great value for money (we were seeking £100,000 per year – only 1/5 of the maximum amount available).

It is discouraging that OCS did not feel our contribution to their objectives and to reflecting the interests of the community sector were sufficiently compelling to retain our strategic partner status.

However that is of little importance in the scheme of things…and the purpose of this post is not to bemoan our particular case. Of far greater importance is whether the programme’s aims of ‘representing the sector as a whole to government’ and in particular ‘effectively and accurately represent the voice of small, localised organisations and those representing people with protected characteristics.’

As Urban Forum, and many others, have consistently said, the opportunities that Big Society can offer will be wholly undermined if those who lack power and resources are not supported to take advantage. We risk exacerbating inequality if we simply create new opportunities for citizens to take greater control of what happens in their communities that poorer and more marginalised groups are less able to take up and use. So OCS’s focus on ensuring that the strategic partners programme gave a voice to smaller organisations and marginalised groups was welcomed.

Looking at the list of strategic partners OCS have decided to award funding to, the first thing that strikes you is the complete absence of any particular equalities groups. Not one of the organisations on the list specifically supports ‘people with protected characteristics’ (a horrible phrase…invoking associations with ‘endangered species’, but meaning; young people, older people, faith groups, gender, race, disabled people etc).

There were already huge gaps in the list of existing strategic partners – no partners representing the interests of disabled groups for example – but there were a number whose focus is on particular equalities groups. The decision not to fund the likes of Voice 4 Change England, Women’s Resource Centre, LGBT Consortium and the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services makes a mockery of OCS’s stated aims.

This is not to say that the larger VCS membership organisations such as NCVO and ACEVO do not have members from these groups or that they may do good work on equalities. However their remit is to represent their whole membership to government, which inevitably means that smaller voices and under-represented groups will be, well, under-represented.

Then there is the question of community sector voices into government – the ‘small, localised organisations’ mentioned in the programme aims. Again, there seems to be a complete absence of any distinct focus on this part of the sector that accounts for something like 80% of civil society organisations. This is the focus of Urban Forum’s work – but we were not alone among the existing strategic partners. If Community Matters, for example, had been awarded strategic partner status, we might have felt that at least someone was there to provide a distinct voice for small local community groups. But again OCS’s actions appear to be completely out of step with their words.

This is deeply worrying as it suggests a profound lack of knowledge and understanding of the community sector being distinct from the more formal activity of the voluntary sector and social enterprise. Of course there is overlap, but to suggest large charities like NSPCC or the RSPCA share much in common with an informal community group planting flowers to enhance their neighbourhood is frankly absurd.

Who will be the champions for informal voluntary action and community association now? And what does this say about the government’s view of these groups who are being asked to step up and deliver the Big Society?

What also appears to be revealed with the selection of strategic partners is the emphasis on social enterprise. We know that this government, and the last one, are keen to see social enterprises and charities delivering public services and being more commercially focused that is a positive thing – if (and it’s a big if!) they appreciate that this is only one piece of the jigsaw.

Not all activity can generate income but that does not mean it has no value to society (and indeed to the economy). Community association can keep people physically and mentally well and avoid expensive medical intervention. That does not come through a public service or generate income, but it does reduce the burden on public funds.

The Social Enterprise Coalition (with Co-ops UK), Locality and a consortium of Unltd, School for Social Entrepreneurs, Plunkett Foundation, CAN and Social Firms UK, all provide valuable support and voice for social and community enterprise and this is much needed. However the social enterprise sector has done remarkably well, punching well above their weight in terms of their representation as strategic partners, relative to their size within civil society as a whole.

There is one further aspect of OCS’s selection of strategic partners that raises an eyebrow for me and that is the inclusion of the Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF) and the Community Foundations Network (CFN) on the list. I must declare, to be wholly transparent, my personal connection, as a former trustee of ACF and a current member.

Both ACF and CFN are organisations I have tremendous respect for and I admire the excellent work that both organisations do with and on behalf of their members. But their members are (respectively) charitable trusts and community foundations – organisations with combined assets of many billions of pounds. If the membership bodies for organisations with these level of resources are (to use OCS’s derogatory phrase) ‘dependent on the state for funding’ then what prospect to the rest of us have for sustaining ourselves?

The programme appears to have directed funding towards the larger organisations (which does not mean that some large organisations have not received funding) at the expense of those who represent smaller interests and organisations (which are inevitably smaller). The Spirit Level tells us that inequality is bad for society and I believe the same goes for the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector. My congratulations go to the organisations that have been awarded strategic partner status – they do excellent work and we need their strong and effective advocacy for the sector now more than ever.

No doubt some will see this piece as being simply ‘sour grapes’ and of course the decision hurts, but these points are not about Urban Forum, or even the organisations that have been successful. It is about OCS and their complete failure to follow up on their rhetoric of supporting marginalised voices into government.

If Big Society is really going to ‘place power in the hands of those who lack it’ as David Cameron has said, then we need our champions in Whitehall to start reflecting this. On the evidence of this decision we have an uphill struggle to achieve that.


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Marvin Symes
Marvin Symes
13 years ago

A brilliant article echoes my thoughts entirely, even though that may sound biased from an employee of Community Matters, where is the voice for the small community groups in this, and how can a charity that has over 1300 community member groups providing a well of community development support and knowledge for over 60 years, now be under threat of closure in one coalition stroke of a pen? Big Society talk/ action is looking weaker by the day.

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