The future of VCS infrastructure

One East Midlands front cover-page-001Regional VCS infrastructure organisation One East Midlands announced last year that it intended to close, following the closure of similar networks in the East, Yorkshire and Humber and the South East.  Ideas to Impact undertook an impact and legacy report for One East Midlands, which demonstrated that many people felt there was still a need for some sort of regional infrastructure, but a lack of resources to pay for it.  This isn’t just the case at a regional level, at a national and local level infrastructure organisations are also closing down.

Our research showed that people would miss One East Midlands, in fact one of our findings was that commissioners and other public sector respondents to our survey were the most likely to say that they would miss it.  There was also a concern that its closure would affect small to medium local VCS organisations more than larger organisations or national charities who have networks into influence through other means.

Hasn’t regional Government gone?

Although regional Government has “gone” – in reality there are still bodies for the VCS to connect with at a level above local authorities – we identified Local Enterprise Partnerships, the DCLG and BiS Midlands Growth Team, East Midlands Funders Forum, Public Health and NHS England, the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, regional Cabinet Office presence with responsibility for the VCS, and East Midlands Councils, although many of these don’t follow “East Midlands” boundaries so we concluded that any future support needed to have fuzzy boundaries depending on need.  Our survey found that the top roles people identified for regional infrastructure were to:

  1. Support engagement with regional or sub-regional commissioners and decision makers and other bodies
  2. Build cross sector relationships and partnerships
  3. Coordinate tenders and funding applications for programmes that are above local level, e.g. two or more cities / counties.

Can’t local infrastructure do this?

In some cases, yes, but there was general agreement across all stakeholders that despite various national programmes, including ChangeUp, Capacitybuilders and the Big Lottery’s Transforming Local Infrastructure, that local infrastructure was still patchy both in terms of services provided and the quality.  There was also some distrust about local infrastructure “competing” with frontline providers for funds.  Ironically One East Midlands’ determination to remain a “pure” infrastructure organisation is one of the reasons given for them being so highly trusted, but it has meant finding funding has been more challenging.  There is funding out there for projects, but not for “being there,” which was valued by commissioners and funders in particular because of the relationships, knowledge and trust.  Many people told us that having Rachel Quinn there as Chief Executive was key to the organisation’s success.  However, having to continually chase bits of funding is exhausting, whatever type of organisation you are, particularly if there is no core there to support this work and when the national press then accuses you of spending too much on “administration”.

What are the challenges now for the VCS and its infrastructure?

Some of the issues that came up during our research included:

1. How to engage with devolution – the picture is still unclear but it’s important for the VCS to be involved with discussions, including transformation around health and social care.

2. Consortium development and bidding for larger tenders, e.g. Work Programme and Transforming Rehabilitation are examples of national Government programmes tendered across different city / county areas – there are consortia in some areas, for example Reaching People in LeicesterShire and Commsortia in Northamptonshire, but there is not coverage across the region – analysing what is likely to be tendered at what value and how the VCS will be able to respond is crucial.  At the same time the emergence of new VCS Consortia could create shifting sand for existing local infrastructure organisations.

3. The need for the VCS to be more coordinated in leading change, delivering services and demonstrating impact in specific areas of work – some of the Big Lottery programmes such as Talent Match or Ageing Better have encouraged the VCS to do this, giving one point of entry that makes it so much easier for the public sector and others to refer into services and understand the pattern of provision and puts the onus on the VCS to demonstrate its collective impact rather than this happening piecemeal.   This might be better done at a local level, but perhaps would be made easier by a mechanism to share ideas and good practice at a higher geographical level.  This is a change for many VCS infrastructure organisations who deliver services based on the demand of individual organisations – there will always be a need for this type of work but it’s not always easy to demonstrate how this meets local priority need or to measure the impact.

What happens next?  Ultimately, One East Midlands was created because the local VCS saw a need and created it.  Something similar may happen again; there a lot of great people around who are strategic and good at networking.  The sector works by identifying a need and developing something to meet it – but these are challenging times that require us all to remember to look outward and not inward to identify how we can support each other.

Becky Nixon, Director of Ideas to Impact, has worked for 20 years in national infrastructure (National Homeless Alliance, now Homeless Link, and Advice Services Alliance), regional infrastructure (Engage East Midlands now One East Midlands) and most recently as Deputy Chief Executive at Voluntary Action LeicesterShire.  Andy Robinson of Langton Brook Consultants also brought his extensive senior level public sector experience to the project.  See about us for more information.

Ideas to Impact carries out a range of consultancy to support the VCS and public sector through change, including consultations, research and evaluation, impact measurement, change management, organisational development and facilitation.  These are detailed on our services and support packages pages.

 

 

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