Drifting Off Course?

Research on the impact of public service delivery from the perspective of the voluntary and community sector and government. A report originally prepared for the Task Force.
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Value of service delivery

The study estimates that the income to the voluntary and community sector from government sources for service delivery is between £23.5 million and £30 million.

However, the researchers had difficulty in identifying funding to the sector from contracts and service level agreements which had been raised by a commissioning note from VCU. So, estimates are based on incomplete data.

Overview of the findings

The benefits of public service delivery for a voluntary or community organisation

  • Contracts enable them to generate a surplus which can be used to fund other core activities or contribute to (or create) reserve funds.
  • The majority did not feel that their involvement in service delivery affected their ability to speak out independently or criticise statutory funders.
  • In contrast to grant aid, service delivery agreements and contracts make the relationship between the parties involved much clearer with less room for confusion and disagreement.
  • The negative impact of public service delivery for organisations in the sector
  • For many new to the contracting culture there were continuing problems accessing funding for core or management costs and a consequent feeling that they were subsidising public service delivery.
  • Criticisms of double standards operating when there was competition with private and statutory sector providers. Many groups felt that there was undue variation in practice between similar statutory sector funders, and individual relationships had too much sway in access to funding for service delivery.
  • Several organisations felt that they were expected to carry too much of the risk in setting up new programmes of service delivery within very tight deadlines.

The government view of the sector as a deliverer of public services

  • Outside of their own immediate experience of dealing with specific groups they largely felt it was difficult to understand the disparate nature of the voluntary and community sector and the wide range and size of organisations. 
  • The fragmented nature of the sector led some to speculate that rationalisation in the number of voluntary and community groups was a good thing and inevitable due to future changes in funding.
  • A strong criticism was the perceived low level of professionalism within the sector when it came to service delivery. Several of the interviewees were not impressed with the capacity of groups in the sector and their ability to realistically perform to required standards.
  • General support for the idea of organising information seminars and workshops to allow voluntary and community groups, and others, to gain a fuller understanding of the demands of performance contracting.

The research provided indepth recommendations for the Task Force to consider

Two major recommendations included: 

  • a greater information exchange between the sector and government to demystify the process of procurement, competitive tendering and service delivery. A clear need for an arena where information, experience and advice could be shared by those participating in service delivery or considering it. 
  • the need for a clear policy statement from government, specific to Northern Ireland, on the future involvement of the voluntary and community sector in public service delivery. A first stage in this process would be guidance and advice from the Task Force based on the findings of this research and the recommendations from the Cross Cutting Review of the Voluntary and Community Sector (HM Treasury, 2002).

Since this research was submitted to the Task Force the government has responded to Investing Together in its Positive Steps document where public service delivery is to the fore. Positive Steps announces a Modernisation Fund of £3 million over three years to promote change within the sector and strengthen its service delivery role. The report also states the need for a level playing field for voluntary and community organisations to operate on by allowing the full recovery of overhead costs from delivering a contracted service.

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