In praise of… grant funding
Martin Sime, Third Force News
There’s a school of thought out there that all will be well if only the third sector can win some more contracts from government. For at least the last decade, but probably for the last 30 years, this has been expressed through a desire to see us playa bigger role in the delivery of public services. Only last week, new UK Government ministers Lords Freud and Wei were saying the very same thing.
Much good work has been undertaken to make this possible. Commissioners have been trained in our ways; various methodologies have been developed to capture the added value that third sector delivery brings; political commitments have been made to scale down and de-risk contracts to enable our players to compete. The emerging contractual framework for the Work Programme will either benchmark progress or expose empty rhetoric.
But the downside to all of this is beginning to loom large at the start of this so-called "age of austerity" . Everyone now knows that competitive tendering of care contracts has driven down price, wages and quality; we can expect more’ of the same. With a few honourable exceptions, our sector is unable to exert much influence on the content of such contracts – co-production is apparently ruled out by procurement rules – so we are relegated to a provider role in competition with each other and the private sector. In other words, the third sector is there to deliver what the state wants.
Aside from claims that this has dampened our advocacy and campaigning appetite, there are wider negative consequences. Some ideological zealots, enthusiastically supported by Scottish Enterprise and others who should know better, pro-nounce the era of grant funding to be at an end. More "business-like" contracts will make us more enterprising and, somehow, more sustainable. Grants are bad because they breed dependency and so we head to the marketplace, where price is king.
An emerging paradox exposes the danger in all of this. What’s left of the grant funded sector tends to be the informal stuff – befriending, drop-in, self help and communityled initiatives. Government, mostly local government, makes a grant contribution to such services because it recognises a value in what is being done. The relationships are different. Independence, innovation and community involvement are much more prevalent in such grant funded regimes.
However, it is widely recognised that such funding will be fIrst in the fIring line of cuts – exposed by the short term nature of most grants and a retrenchment mindset in much of the public sector. This is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Shutting community transport means that ambulances have to be sent out to collect stranded patients; reducing grants to pensioner lunch clubs increases social isolation which in turn leads to more formal and more expensive interventions; closing healthy living initiatives will cost more in the long run.
The SCVO Manifesto, Doing Things Differently has struck a chord with many in the last few months. The explicit message in the face of our public expenditure crisis is that government needs to value the informal networks of community action, of people doing things for themselves and each other, much more than is evident today. As a society we need more, not less community action as part of the solution.
The implicit message is that we need to protect and extend grant funding as a good way for the state to make investments in our work without seeking to dominate or control what is delivered. Doing things differently needs to be rather more than just outsourcing.
Grant funding is ever more necessary in today’s world. It can live side by side with procurement and markets but cannot be replaced by them. I have written before about the flaws in the Big Society programme down south. Its view of the third sector is entirely instrumental – we are there to do the government’s bidding (and we might get paid if we deliver results). Such an approach won’t get the best from the third sector or from community action. It may help to reduce the size of the state and to shave a few pounds off the cost. But it will reduce our sector to agency status and, ultimately, hole us below the waterline in terms of our most precious asset – public trust and confidence.
The challenge for Scotland’s political parties and public sector is to produce a convincing narrative backed by plans which inspire citizens to believe that what they do they can make a contribution and make a difference. Believe it or not, grant funding is the best means to this end.