Future Public Spending: Response to correspondence from Alex Attwood MLA,
Minister for Social Development.
The Minister’s letter of 10 August refers to future public spending being under extreme
pressure in both the short and longer term; indicating that the protection of front line services
and vulnerable people will demand resolve and creativity. Volunteer Now welcomes the
opportunity to input our views on how, ‘during these tough economic times we might protect
the vulnerable, preserve the best of voluntary and community action and create the space to
grow and test new ideas’.
A key component of the history of voluntary action across the UK and Ireland is one
of tackling inequality and disadvantage, seeking to deliver social change. In times of
crisis it is harnessing the passion and motivation of those outside the bureaucracy of
government that often generates the impetus for creative solutions. Government
enabling this to happen can provide a catalyst for action and partnership working that
adds value to interventions delivered only by the state. The aspiration of the
Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy seeks to work within such an agenda. Therefore
overarching the three questions posed by the Minister is the need for his Department
to not only recognise but champion across Government the value and contribution of
the voluntary & community sector; the Minister himself has a key leadership role in
making this happen.
Question 1: What should be the priority areas within DSD to best protect those in need,
stress or disadvantage? What works best and what should be reviewed?
Difficult question as the Department is the only organisation best placed to have an
overview of its total work. However if we take its strategic priorities as investing in
housing and addressing the housing crisis; building communities, tacking
disadvantage and encouraging social responsibility; and creating vibrant cities, towns
and urban areas then it is clear that the overarching priority has to be to ensure that
those already vulnerable are not further disadvantaged by proposed savings or
funding cuts. Avoiding this will include reviewing within the Department what works
effectively; if not known already, asking those delivering and receiving services what
has made a difference to their lives and well being. Organisations in the voluntary &
community sector are often best placed to comment on what works and to enable
engagement with citizens and those in receipt of DSD supported intervention.
Urban regeneration and neighbourhood renewal is a priority area of work for the
Department; disadvantaged communities need even more attention in times of
recession to avoid their particular situation becoming increasingly more marginalised.
There is evidence across Northern Ireland of voluntary & community organisations
providing a focal point for developing and sustaining community development,
cohesion and sustainability.
Such evidence has been recognised in the report ‘Making good society. Final report
of the Carnegie UK Commission of Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK
and Ireland: Part 3 Conclusion page 147’ where they refer to the following Belfast
example. ‘Ballynafeigh is a neighbourhood of some 5,000 people in South Belfast. It
grew up around its four churches and today is mixed both in social and religious
terms. Strong social capital made it a good place to live, pushing up house prices
and making it a community which attracted migrants, including the long standing
Chinese community. At the heart of Ballynafeigh is the community House,
headquarters of the Ballynafeigh community Development association (CDA), set up
in the 1970s to hold the community together when others were falling apart. The
CDA remains the glue of the community, helped by collaboration between the four
churches. It is also a hive of activity. Ballynafeigh is proof of the difference that civil
society can make even in difficult environments. This is not so unusual. There are
many places where civil society helps communities find peace instead of conflict,
economic revival instead of decline. Usually you find a few decisive institutions at
work there. And usually, too, you find a few decisive individuals, steeled by having to
fight for what they believe, often with an irrepressible sense of humour.’
Voluntary action by individuals is clearly important to building sustainable
communities. The profile of Enniskillen Neighbourhood Renewal Area indicates that
the population is 2,939 with 1,337 households. Research carried out into
volunteering in the area (VSB Audit report October 2009) indicated that 18% of
residents were volunteering either formally or informally. It is voluntary & community
organisations who are providing these individuals with the opportunity to engage and
participate at a local level. The volunteering while lower than the NI statistic of 21%
indentifies a very active group of volunteers. The research however also identified
anecdotally that there is evidence of burnout by those volunteers, there is a need to
motivate and encourage others to get involved. Successful urban regeneration and
neighbourhood renewal requires local people to engage in taking ownership and
responsibility for their own communities. The sustainability of community well being is
often measured by the number of individuals actively involved in voluntary action.
The bonding, bridging and linking that is part of social capital are important
components to improving the quality of life of the citizens of Northern Ireland.
The community renewal aspiration that underpins key DSD priorities aims to
establish confident communities that are able and committed to improving the quality
of life in their areas. This requires support for voluntary action by organisations and
individuals at a local level. The proposed Concordat outlining the relationship
between the voluntary & community sector and the proposed volunteering strategy
for Northern Ireland are both the lead responsibility of DSD and it should be a priority
to implement and champion these to enable the frameworks for effective
government/voluntary & community sector interventions and citizen engagement
through volunteering to assist the addressing of need and disadvantage.
The Department often takes a ring fencing approach to the funding it provides in
relation to accountability and outcomes without acknowledging the additional funding
that voluntary & community organisations bring to the delivery of activities from
across a range of funding sources. Accountability for public funding is important
however more flexibility is required to enable the best use of a range of funding. This
adds value to delivery of outcomes and can support new ways of working such as
Time Banking – a new initiative in Northern Ireland being given leadership by
Volunteer Now to support different ways of developing volunteering particular with
groups and in areas where volunteer activity may be low; this new initiative has
attracted funding from independent funders such as the Building Change Trust and
Atlantic Philanthropies; it builds on work already funded by the Department and adds
value to the delivery of DSD objectives.
Less burdensome and more flexible funding mechanisms need to be put in place;
often the bureaucracy around funding is inappropriate to the level of risk and works
against adding value/ delivering creative intervention. There is an imbalance of
attention to process as opposed to a focus on outcomes.
Question 2: What could or should be done within the voluntary & community sector to work
better to address overheads and deliver greater benefits to the community?
Voluntary & community organisations are very diverse in activity, scope and scale;
this diversity can be seen as strength and a weakness. However when we remember
that most voluntary & community organisations provide a service/activities/
opportunities for people to engage with access to very little or no public funding then
the diversity is definitely an advantage and really showcases civil society going about
its own business; these organisations are volunteer led and run. The spectrum of the
sector moves from volunteer led and run organisations to multi-million pound
organisations with a large number of employees delivering on, e.g. substantial
government contracts and everything in between. In this context it is hard to
generalise however there are some broad points that can be made if we focus on
those organisations that employ staff, deliver some form of service and receive public
The budget that will be set for four years from April 2011 is going to be challenging
and cuts in funding are more likely than not, the reality is that organisations will be
facing difficult choices and decisions about their sustainability and priorities. It will be
useful for all organisations to focus on mission and outcomes rather than, e.g. size
and organisational sustainability.
The voluntary & community sector is often drawn into competition through how
funding is delivered i.e. a competitive process of grant application or contract
procurement. More collaborative working and greater sharing of resources should be
encouraged, not just by organisations but by funders and commissioners of services.
Organisations often feel that the term ‘merger’ is a threat and an easy option
suggested by those who ‘don’t understand how the sector works’. Merger is not
always the right answer but sector organisations should be more open to see it as an
option to be considered. The experience of Volunteer Now as a new organisation
created through merger shows that delivery of services can be enhanced, e.g.
Volunteers Week in 2010 (just three months after merger) was more successful that
2009 as a result of a more cohesive approach to promotion.
Finance & administrative functions are often a difficulty for smaller organisations with
small budgets and limited income, particularly when the bureaucracy around grant
funding can be complex and demanding. The sector itself needs to consider what
offer of support can be provided to support these smaller organisations as they often
have a very valuable role to play in meeting particular needs of disadvantage groups
The sector is not as proactive as it should be about telling the success stories;
organisations are making a huge contribution to improving and sustaining the well
being of our community, working with and for those who are most disadvantaged. We
need to not only measure but present to a wider audience the benefits and positive
outcomes of our work.
NICVA State of the Sector report 2009 indicates that voluntary & community sector
organisations are going to require increasing number of volunteers to support their
work. Organisations need to commit to best practice in involving and managing
volunteers to maximise their impact and enhance their volunteer experience.
Question 3: Do you have any wider comments about how the Executive should address the
When making decisions ensure that those most disadvantaged are not adversely
affected or further marginalised.
Government departments working more collaboratively to avoid duplication and
maximise use of resources to deliver on shared Programme of Government targets.
Across government there is a need for prioritisation, best value and recognition of the
role of the voluntary & community sector as a delivery partner.
Less bureaucracy is required in relation to processes that enable flexible and added
value responses from the voluntary & community sector to the delivery of activities
and services supported by government.
Wendy Osborne OBE