My local authority (Hull City Council) has just completed the process of putting out to tender third sector infrastructure support services. Just to be clear, I have not advised or acted for any of the organisations that entered this competition, nor have I been close to the process (I’ve not even read the contract specification). I do not particularly want to single out Hull City Council either as it is not alone in putting out such services to competitive tender. I have a problem with the whole concept of setting up rival organisations to compete against each other to deliver something as fundamentally important and complex as local infrastructure support. I don’t see it’s in the interests of the voluntary and community sector, the local authority or service users.
My starting point is that local infrastructure organisations (or LIOs such as CVSs or Voluntary Action Centres) should be owned and controlled by the sector. They should be membership based organisations with a governing body elected by and accountable to that constituency. In my experience, front line voluntary organisations don’t want to see rival ISOs competing with one another to provide support services. They want a single point of contact that understands the sector, is efficient and can respond to need quickly. That needs long term core funding, an increasingly rare commodity in a public sector increasingly seduced by the myth of quality control through competitive tendering.
Now, I’d be the first to admit that many local ISOs fall short of quality provision and I’m not advocating a sloppy approach to performance management – quite the contrary in fact. Sensible local authorities and their partners should in my view accept the value of a membership based ISO as a core strategic partner and provide it with an adequate level of core infra structure grant so it can provide the basic functions of development, support, liaison representation and strategic partnership work. The grant should be dependent on meeting the externally audited NAVCA quality standard to ensure quality provision. The tendering process inevitably involves establishing a set of arbitrary targets which are almost always about the quantity of service provision as opposed to quality client outcomes. This is a time consuming process which does little to raise standards and is a poor substitute for effective performance management.
The lack of adequate core grant funding means that many LIOs are diverted from their core functions by constantly chasing other funding opportunities in the hope of generating income through management fees. Such distractions swallow up management time and blur the focus to the point where services to the sector suffer.
In Hull, the tendering process has driven a wedge through the sector as hungry organisations in something of a feeding frenzy have been pitched against each other, polarising the sector. A single ISO, locally accountable, has the ability to galvanise the sector and play to its strengths. Rather that setting up rival ISOs in gladiatorial combat, the Council should act as the honest broker to support and enable the sector to decide on how local infrastructure services should be delivered. That’s my interpretation of good community leadership. What do you think?