People powered change? An issue of transparency

People powered change? An issue of transparency
Richard Caulfield, Chief Executive, Voluntary Sector North West

I read details of the latest People Powered Change lottery funding with interest this week.

I was, and remain, hugely disappointed at the first round of funding and how it feels as though organisations with no track record, such as Your Square Mile, seemed to access huge sums of money to carry out a programme of work which, in parts, tramples over and ignores lots of good work going on locally. Even worse in my mind, it feeds into government thinking that everything from economic development to community empowerment can be achieved by toolkits and websites.

I left the People Powered Change launch early due to my disappointment and was asked by some key leaders in the North West VCS to write to the Lottery to express concern at the direction of travel current Lottery funding is taking: I must admit to being lax on this, but this blog is the start of making up for it.

My anxiety levels were raised this week when I read the launch of the funding for Media Trust – not because of Media Trust, but because I am a trustee at People’s Voice Media and 90 per cent of the press release could have been about us: the language, direction of travel, just about everything.

So, did our Chief Executive miss a funding pot that was available for us? Have we been lax at looking for Lottery funding to develop our work in empowering communities and people through social media? Perhaps someone at BIG can let me know.

Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t move in the right circles, drink in the right bars or attend the right parties?

I worry that what is at play here is a need for BIG to drive down its admin costs due to the government target of five per cent: big competitive programmes will undoubtedly be expensive and we could see the same problem here as we see when commissioning has to be done at large scale due to capacity issues.

It also reinforces an issue I have about national organisations leading so much that is aimed at the local. I am stung by what I see as a centralisation agenda by a government that preaches localism, and my prejudice is fed when I witness grant funders giving more big national contracts for local empowerment.

These may sound like outrageous accusations – especially of a funder that I have always considered excellent and supportive with talented staff, but the lack of transparency in these processes has lead many of us to think like that.

Lack of openness and transparency alienates people, creates cynics, and dampens the very creativity and ingenuity programmes like People Powered Change is meant to create.

So, come on BIG, please let us know the process for these recent investments. Let us know where we can engage in the shaping of these programmes, and we can see how people-powered change can really happen.

Response from Peter Wanless, Chief Executive, Big Lottery Fund

Hi Richard

Many thanks again for another thought provoking Big Lottery-related message. You raise some very important issues, many of which I agree with. So let’s start with those.

1. I agree completely that People Powered Change is not enabled or enhanced by toolkits and websites alone.

2. It’s really important that there are opportunities for people throughout the UK to have a chance of accessing Lottery cash for the good causes that matter most to them.

3. BIG should encourage transparency and we should guard against the risk that our funding is awarded disproportionately to groups who move in certain circles. That is why our regional and country offices spend so much time listening to perspectives, particularly in "cold spot" areas that have struggled to access our cash. That’s why I get out and about whenever I can. It’s why I bother reading and replying personally to blogs like this. It’s why we publish all our Committee minutes. It’s what we have been inviting scores of groups to our Big Insight programme development events. It’s why you’ll see our staff, week after week, visiting projects in every part of the country, far more than any of us have either the time or inclination to attend parties.

4. You are right to observe that an admin cost cap is a potential constraint on this face to face outreach but listening is an absolute priority to us, as is our desire to give voice to those least obviously able to express it themselves. Take a look at this programme, for example, that we are launching in Wales today.

5. It is essential that the Lottery preserves its arm’s length status. Government can, of course, issue us with policy directions and we are expecting them to consult on some new ones shortly. I’ll be encouraging you to comment! But we currently operate under a pretty enabling framework, that has been in place and served us well since BIG’s inception.

My main problem with your post is that it equates People Powered Change with an extremely narrow set of investments that are but a small part of what we are seeking to achieve as a Fund. We see People Powered Change as the overarching banner or philosophy that will inform all our funding across England in the period ahead. Within an England portfolio that has over £400 million a year to commit, funding is – or will be – typically subject to a competitive process. This may be very open or demand led; it may be constrained by issue or geography where, in consultation with relevant experts, we choose to focus demand onto solving specific problems. We have already announced the £200 million Big Local Trust and the first 50 areas to benefit from it. All 50 beneficiaries of up to £1 million are totally defined by the fact that they are absolutely not the ususal subjects for Lottery cash, but the estates and neighbourhoods who have previously failed to secure what we would expect them to get from the good causes pot. In every one of our funding programmes, we publish programme rules, processes and guidance notes. Everything you and others can do to help us make those avaialble, accessible and clear to all who might be interested is something we appreciate greatly.

In a very small number of cases, BIG has judged that there could be a case for a rapid injections of investment into the supporting infrastructure, to sit around the vast bulk of our funding, that could help accelerate and develop people powered change at a local level (our ultimate desire and passion). We receive many such approaches from organisations, the vast majority of which we turn away or encourage to apply competitively to one of our programmes. For a tiny handful, where the objective being proposed is deemed potentially to be of unique value, BIG will solicit a bid. In such circumstances, the solicited organisation must demonstrate clearly what it is uniquely placed to achieve and how those outcomes will be achieved. As it happens, the new investments announced at Salford were a clutch of four solicitations. The Media Trust is a fifth. In total they represent less than £10 million of our overall portfolio. None of this has been influenced by Government but flows from decisions made by our Non-Executive Directors.

We are always open to solicitation proposals but they are very much the exception in terms of how we fund. There is no special route to advancing such a case – you are as well connected to BIG and to me personally as anyone else, through our North West office and via Twitter. In the specific case of People’s Voice Media, I can see that great work is being done. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the similarities, I don’t believe that organisation can lever the national partnerships and infrastructure to benefit local action, that the Media Trust will bring through their unique proposition. And so far as Your Square Mile is concerned, BIG is specifically funding the development of a digital platform which we judged was worth giving a chance to prove itself. We will not support its imposition upon communities however. It will live or die by its ability to attract community engagement and support.

I hope this is somewhat reassuring – making the best use of Lottery money depends so much on working with and through dedicated people working at local level. I want us to be encouraging, enabling and energising you in ways that are helpful.

Best wishes.