Third sector and local government: fixing a broken relationship

In response to the RSE report on the economic contribution of the third sector in Scotland, Dave Spence on fostering a genuine partnership between the third sector and councils.

Dave Spence, former CEO of Scottish Outdoor Education Centres

It has been known for decades that the third sector meets peoples’ needs through excellent quality services. It can be highly cost-effective, and its potential for the economy is significant. These positives are insufficient to overcome the obstacles that suppress the sector and prevent it from achieving even more for the economy and society.

Barriers to change

We must do things differently if we are to realise the sector’s potential. Therefore, it is essential to understand the barriers to change. Perpetuating the status quo is not an option if we are to turn around key trends in the economy, society, and the environment. We must create new structures and relationships to improve the way services are provided in the future.

After a career spanning 40 years in local and central government, including 20 years as chief executive of a large Scottish charity and social enterprise, I understand the inertia and potential in all sectors and have progressed beyond the obstacles to solutions. For example:

The need to create genuine partnership working – on many occasions, as a charity leader, the government encouraged us to engage in new policy ideas, but this was blocked by those managing the partnerships – the councils. When councils talk of partnership, they are merely engaged in joined-up government; it rarely extends to charities. This leads to councils seeing charities as competitors and treating charities as a zero-sum game.  Should councils compete against and undermine the third sector providers that have proved sustainable over the long term?

Measuring success

Services should be assessed objectively through cost/benefit analyses. Without this to ‘level the playing field,’ councils undercut third sector providers through their provision of astonishingly expensive projects. Which agency is best placed to audit the provision by both councils and the third sector? Without transparency, and until more comparative measures are found, ‘return on investment’ analyses are useful and highlight added value.

Relationships should be changed to reflect the professionalism of the third sector, its commitment to service recipients, and to recognise its wealth-creating capacity. A fraught relationship goes back to the late 1940s, with long-lasting pendulum swings between councils acting as gatekeepers (keeping other views and service providers at arms-length) and councils as partners collaborating with others in their patch. This raises national-level issues. A council will not support a national charity if it considers its money will leach into the other 31 councils.  Also, some councils may see the benefit of working with the third sector, but at the highest council decision-making levels, it takes only one to say ‘no’ for the lowest denominator to prevail. These are major factors in stifling change.

Some councils hold an anachronistic view that having the electoral mandate, they should be the only providers of services. This view is the starting point for demands for more money from the government to retain jobs and services. It does not recognise that reliance on service delivery by councils leads to ossification and that inertia that ensures national policy takes years to filter into councils.

Nor does it recognise that many third sector organisations have operated over decades, sustaining jobs and generating innovative service provision while operating under viable business models. My own charity provided over 100,000 learning days to 15,000 young people per annum. Over the same period, councils showed an inexorable decline in similar facilities, reducing to less than a handful of council providers. Just because councils cannot make it work financially, it does not mean that a service is not urgently needed nor hugely significant and important to the public.

It is widely held that increasing productivity is essential in the coming years. In a world of rapid change, being more agile and adaptive is also essential. Innovation and creativity emerge from genuine partnerships where practitioners from different backgrounds and perspectives collaborate for shared outcomes.

To be clear, the aim here is not to plea for more money. To maintain the status quo is to perpetuate economic, social and environmental decline. To do things better, we must do things differently. It is possible to deliver better services by organising and managing providers across sectors better.

Dave Spence, former CEO of Scottish Outdoor Education Centres

This was in response to the RSE’s policy advice report, the economic contributions of the third sector.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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