About a year ago an inquiry into infrastructure in London was started in response to a decision by London Funders to stop funding pan-london infrastructure in April 2017 – i.e. end funding to London-wide voluntary sector support bodies such as London Voluntary Service Council, London Advice Services Alliance etc. London Funders simultaneously took the decision to commission a report into the future of london infrastructure. This gave them a year to come up with a strategy for pan-London infrastructure support before the funding ended.
This all seemed logical and there was some logic to looking more widely at voluntary and community sector infrastructure across London at the same time. It was a decision that local CVSs and Volunteer Centres (the main local infrastructure bodies) weren’t consulted on but it seemed logical and despite being a top down initiative VCSs engaged with good will.
The original brief to the consultants contained both a wish to:
“to understand how civil society in the capital can best be supported in order to optimise its positive impact on Londoners”
“know how support should be provided in London for the future to meet the needs of front line organisations”
“A robust vision for infrastructure in London”
There then followed a very lengthy process, involving large numbers of stakeholders. Arguably at this point a critical error was made as the remit of the enquiry was opened up too wide – to include all of civil society – without ever defining where civil society begins and ends (relevant to infrastructure if we are to have a role supporting it). This was a critical juncture in the process and worth unpicking in more detail elsewhere. So rather than dwell on this stage of the process it can be summed up as confusing, often with too many disparate groups in the room all talking at cross purposes to feel that anything useful was being achieved.
After six months an interim report was produced that most agreed left a lot to be desired.
If the reports provocative nature was aimed at galvanizing interest, then it succeeded as a huge effort by key stakeholders was launched to try to bring the project back on track (or at least back down to earth).
Finally in November 2016 the final report was unveiled. It was 69 pages long and it’s central conclusion was to propose a new vision and system for civil society, containing 12 core themes achieved through a system of 10 stakeholder groups (see diagram below).
The 12 themes and key proposals are:
Proposed vision and system
The twelve core aspects of the proposed vision and system are:
- A shared understanding of need should be co-produced, with communities driving this process,and with the involvement of a range of other players.
- Communities should be enabled to find and deliver their own solutions where possible.
- Frontline volunteers, groups and organisations’ role would be to fill gaps in provision which communities can’t or don’t want to provide for themselves.
- Civil society support would provide a “triage and connect” function to diagnose the issues faced by frontline volunteers, groups and organisations and match them to the right support. Support could be from a range of sources within and beyond civil society.
- Communities, civil society support and funders should act as catalysts for action and also identify emerging needs.
- Civil society support, independent funders and the local public sector should share data gleaned through co-producing a shared understanding of need, and information on policy developments and best practice.
- A London Hub, working with specialist support, should develop standardized resources where possible, which can be customized and delivered locally. The London Hub could be made up of a network of organisations or be a formally constituted body.
- Frontline volunteers, groups and organisations, civil society support and independent funders should campaign and influence locally and regionally.
- Civil society support and independent funders should act as catalysts to drive improvements in quality, based on peer support and challenge.
- The GLA should collate, analyse and provide data on civil society and communities’ needs.
- The GLA, elected representatives, London Councils and independent funders should bring civil society into strategic planning and decision making about the future of London.
- London Councils, the GLA, elected representatives, independent funders and the local public sector should work together to ensure consistent commissioning and funding of civil society support.
The core stakeholders identified in the report are:
- Frontline volunteers, groups and organisations
- Local support
- Specialist support
- London Hub
- London Councils
- Local Public Sector
- Elected representatives
- Independent Funders
The report was launched at Guildhall in the City to much fanfare. The report was embargoed to the last minute – delegates received their copies on their way to their seats at the launch event. Even after studying it carefully it was unclear what was being proposed.
The Next Phase after the End – Implementation
The consultants signed off on their report, got it launched and handed back to London Funders. London Funders then appointed another consultant (Geraldine Blake) – who was on the Way Ahead reference group. Geraldine was given the tricky task of trying to implement the report (or at least achieve something realistic).
Together with Geraldine Blake a group of pragmatic and clear thinking voluntary sector people have stepped forward (mainly a mixture CVS directors and experienced local infrastructure workers) who have formed a ‘systems change’ group and unpicked half a dozen or so key themes from the report and formed working groups to reach some practical conclusions. The working groups are
1 – Co-production
2 – Data
3 – Triage and connect
4 – Voice & Campaigning
5 – Consistent commissioning
These groups are working hard, trying to be inclusive and base their work on evidence and case studies and come up with pragmatic workable solutions.
The Future – A Variety of Risks
- Time is running out. Pan London organisations have issued redundancy notices. Voluntary infrastructure across the capital is in a critical condition.
- Money is running out. City Bridge announced a financial commitment at the November 2016 meeting to take the work forward and provide an emergency lifeline to some of the pan London infrastructure, but it appears that some of this may be contingent on match funding and other funders have not come forward yet.
- Local Authorities in general haven’t been especially engaged (Camden more so than most). Health authorities not at all.
- Trust between the sector and funders and key stakeholders has been damaged as a result of the poorly handled process and there is an urgent need to rebuild trust all round.
- There are many conflicts of interest that do not seem to be managed or even acknowledged. There are particular ways of working that are being promoted such as sub-regionalisation (the super CVS model); Diverting budgets into mass civic participation models of working; The presence of consultants who are both involved in the process, evaluating the sector and bidding against the sector for work.
Where this will all lead is still too unclear to predict but it looks clear that in many ways that local infrastructure bodies (CVSs and Volunteer Centres etc) are back where we started – any funding for local infrastructure organisations will be heavily dependent on local public authorities. The picture for pan-London bodies is less clear but rather bleak.
CVSs and local infrastructure organisations in general have been rather taken aback by the gaps in understanding of civil society and our work and so one key task is to build a better consensus of understanding between us and funders and policy makers of how civil society, community groups and the voluntary sector interlink and how they can best be supported.
There were too many lazy assumptions among policy makers and funders that the sector was amateurish, poor quality, and old fashioned. The simplistic arguments around ‘digital’ being a classic example – where there was little understanding of the sector’s difficult but more sophisticated approach to digital – embracing digital yet retaining face-to- face and telephone and in-person support as key to inclusion and equality – and rejecting the public sector’s blanket ‘digital by default’ approach which is heralded as innovative and saves the public sector costs but often excludes the very people we are there to support.
We are determined to demonstrate to London Funders our willingness to try different things and help move the report forward, rebuilding trust with stakeholders, but above all stay firmly rooted in a world that is both realistic and achievable.