Buying human services in the same way one buys pencils or sacks of cement is to ignore the human aspect, argues Martin Sime, chief executive of SCVO
Things were different 15 years ago. With a compact that guaranteed the voluntary sector's independence including the right to criticise without retribution, a sympathetic UK Government and a new Scottish Parliament, the golden age of third sector delivery of public services lay ahead. Voluntary organisations could and would do so much more, much better and much more efficiently.
What has emerged, however, is of course only a bit like this. There has been a huge expansion of the size and scale of the sector, mostly under contract to local government and mostly delivering care and support. Some providers, as we have become known, have grown exponentially while others have widened their missions to meet new business opportunities. All the big numbers about the size and scale of the third sector, including social enterprises, have been generated off the back of competitive procurement.
Way back in 1999 we didn’t think too hard about any downsides, but the legacy becomes clearer by the day. Competition has all but destroyed solidarity and partnership within the sector, as well as hampering what should be an array of creative coproductions with the state. Many argue that we have become infected, along the way, with a new breed of values-free managerialism where nothing matters except winning the next contract.
Even then, those that have been successful in this purchaser/provider game have reason to worry about the monster which has been created: a huge, casualised, low waged, pensionless and zero-hour workforce, often forced to care in a straightjacket of 15 minute time slots without recompense for the time in between. We have learned the hard way that price is always king in the marketplace.
But the most pernicious aspect of the slide into procurement is, in some ways, the least obvious: many in our sector are losing the ability to experiment or develop new ways to meet need. We now do precisely what we are told; no more, no less. We deliver according to what seems to be ever more detailed public sector specifications and we only get paid for delivering their results. This drives behaviour.
The problem is compounded by a cluttered landscape of professional consultancies, earning hefty fees advising councils and others on how to minimise risk. This is not, you must understand, about how to reduce the risk of poverty, ill-health or loneliness among those who use services, but has everything to do with how councillors can cover their backs should the Accounts Commission or Audit Scotland ever come sniffing around. Forget the rhetoric about outcomes, we got value for money because we tendered the service, is how it goes.
Many in our sector know how to promote self-worth and why it is crucial, but it is difficult to write a contract for it.
Only it doesn’t. Because even a cursory examination of the literature about third sector delivery of public services tells a different story about how to get added value from state investments in our work. Rather than the twin mantras of competition and payment by results, this is a tale of great diversity, ingenuity and enablement where people and organisations have gone the extra mile, where donated income is a welcome addition to limited public funds, and where volunteers and community activism sit side by side with the efforts of paid professionals. Think of the hospices as a model.
Good voluntary organisations add value by enabling people to help themselves, by mobilising people and building community capacity, and through giving practical priority to prevention, dealing with problems before they arise. Good voluntary organisations are repositories of experience and expertise; what they need is a supportive relationship with the state to get the best deal for the people they work with.
What they often get is a municipal local government hellbent on extending the scope of procurement precisely in order to control the third sector. Their vision for the future of public services demands that only they can write the service specification; only they have the mandate to commit public funds. Of course they would rather just run the services themselves – childcare being but the latest example – failing which they want to turn our sector into mere suppliers.
Such a strategy might have had a chance fifty years ago or even in the Thatcher years before new public management itself became discredited. Buying human services in the same way one buys pencils or sacks of cement is to ignore the human aspect which is at the centre of any concept of value, to the individual and to the taxpayer. We now recognise the power of asset-based approaches, of self-directed support and self-management, of people helping themselves and each other to reduce dependencies. Many in our sector know how to promote self-worth and why it is crucial, but it is difficult to write a contract for it.
Reducing public services to make or buy decisions leads directly to their unsustainability. Demographic pressure alone makes that point: there is no service-led solution to growing demand from a larger population of older people. We need stronger communities; which is, paradoxically the opposite of what 15 years of procurement has got us.
There are important footnotes to all of this, including the systematic harvesting of our sector's intellectual capital, the failure to upscale and replicate the things we do which work, the hidden power of bureaucracies and their unchallengeable edicts “based on procurement advice” and so on. But the key point to remember is that what we do best is not capable of being bought, sold or otherwise subjected to the exigencies of the market.
We urgently need a new suite of coproduction ways to get the most out of our partnerships with government, before the procurement industry strangles the life out of us.