Reimagining the relationship

Amid change and reform, the community sector and government can work together positively to support people facing disadvantage, Helen Dickinson says.

The old adage that ‘the only constant in government is change’ has never felt truer than at this point in time. While relationships between governments and the community sector are rarely perfectly harmonious, of late some significant challenges have emerged.

At difficult times such as this, there is a danger that the various protagonists retreat into their own corners and try to slug out their difficulties from rather defensive positions. This is a natural response to a set of truly challenging issues, but one that rarely produces effective solutions.

A different response to difficult times is to use the opportunity to reimagine the relationship between the community sector and government. But this can only be achieved by identifying and acknowledging the challenges that partners face individually and collectively, and then working together to overcome them.

All levels of government are currently experiencing significant pressure to improve in a range of ways. Increasing citizen expectations, new technologies and ways of working, and unprecedented around-the-clock scrutiny from the media mean that governments are being asked to do more with less, empower citizens and service users, and be transparent and answerable about decisions, to an extent we have not previously seen.

These demands take place against the backdrop of the 2014-15 Federal Budget, which is proposing significant spending cuts and prompting a national debate about the nature of entitlement to welfare and government support.

It seems clear that in the future, government funding will be tighter and the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society will face ever more significant challenges. Whether community organisations and governments address this collectively or simply blame one another for these challenges remains to be seen.

One of the solutions that many governments have embraced within their drive for efficiency and productivity is to contract out a variety of different government functions. In a context of contestability, choice and fiscal constraint, this trend only looks set to accelerate.

Although the private sector has largely been seen as the beneficiary of this trend, growing numbers of community organisations have taken on contracts through competitive tendering processes to deliver government-funded services.

“It seems clear that in the future, government funding will be tighter and the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society will face ever more significant challenges.”

Often this is viewed as a win-win situation; community organisations receive funding to deliver services to those individuals, groups or places that they are most concerned with, and governments are able to fund the delivery of quality services and make efficiencies.

In this way government-sponsored contracts allow community organisations to use any revenue generated through these contracts to support a range of other activities relating to the individuals and groups that they aim to service.

However, this promised panacea is not always as simple as it appears and in practice a range of issues pose difficulties for both governments and community organisations alike.

Community organisations have often found that competitive tendering and contracting processes have led to a degree of prescription over how they are required to operate and deliver services.

“Community organisations have often found that competitive tendering and contracting processes have led to a degree of prescription over how they are required to operate and deliver services.”

Contractual regulation and compliance requirements have led to increased reporting requirements, causing community organisations to feel micromanaged and hindered in their ability to deliver services effectively.

To meet the increased reporting obligations, community organisations have to allocate resources away from service delivery and into back office functions, and professionalise the business infrastructure around their activities. Many organisations state that this is inefficient and distracts them from the core business of working with those facing disadvantage.

A further issue worrying a number of community organisations is that of ‘mission creep’, where community organisations take on contracts that draw them into territory they would not have previously considered as core to their activities. This can lead to community organisations taking on a contract and expanding their workforce and operations to fulfil it, and then later finding they need to take on even more work to support their now larger operations. These newer contracts may go beyond their traditional areas of work and the organisations may find that they have lost contact with their initial ethos or values, as they are pulled in different directions.

This is a very challenging context for community organisations. Many were initially established by passionate individuals seeking to address an issue they viewed as detrimental to the wellbeing of particular individuals, groups or places. In a context where some government departments are highly specific about service delivery in terms of particular activities and staffing arrangements, or may require a significant volume of reporting data, taking on such contracts has the potential to detract from this work.

Often those working with the most marginalised or disadvantaged people hold contracts with multiple government departments and find that these all have different systems, reporting timescales and other requirements that further add to this complexity.

Brotherhood of St Laurence chief executive Tony Nicholson recently spoke about these issues in a speech on the future of the welfare sector, which has been widely reported. In this speech he warned that the sorts of changes happening now might lead to the erosion of what voluntary organisations have stood for over the past century.

While this is a frightening prospect, many of these issues are neither new nor specific to Victoria, or even Australia. What history shows here and in other jurisdictions is that simply blaming government for these issues is not a helpful starting point. There are, of course, many things that governments and their departments do that are not helpful in terms of a good working relationship. Yet simply putting blame at the door of government is not productive and ignores the capacity of community organisations to direct their own futures.

“Quite rightly the public demands a higher level of insight into, and transparency around, the spending of public money.”

 It is clear that a number of community organisations feel under threat by the changes afoot through the Victorian Government’s service sector reform processes and some of the sorts of responses we have seen from community organisations may relate simply to a desire to survive.

Red Cross has recently cut a significant number of roles following changes to government schemes. Similarly, the Victorian government recently led a recommissioning process around reforming community support services for people with a mental illness, which led to some community organisations losing funding for their services.

In this sort of context it is unsurprising that community organisations feel anxious, when their very existence may be under threat, and at a time when it is likely that the most disadvantaged within our communities will most need this support.

Whether you agree or not with the notion that Australia 
is living under a fiscal emergency, as the Federal Government suggested in presenting its 2014-15 Budget, one thing that is clear is that in the future there will be less money available for public services. Unless there is a huge boom in the philanthropic funding available to support community organisations, the trends we have seen in other countries such as the UK and Ireland may be repeated here.

It is also clear that government and the public service sector also feels under attack. At the moment it seems to be open season on public servants, with criticisms coming from politicians, the public, academics and the community sector. The criticisms most commonly made by the community sector relate to the inability of different government departments to work in a ‘joined-up’ way, and their tendency to overly bureaucratise what are seemingly simple transactions.

While it is true that there are a number of things that the government sector could do more effectively in this context, it is important to remember that many of the requirements around accountability are not necessarily simply driven by bureaucrats with an innate love of these particular mechanisms.

The topic of scrutiny is one which is high on the agenda for most levels of government, and drives much of this bureaucratic behaviour. Quite rightly the public demands a higher level of insight into, and transparency around, the spending of public money. We want to know that government is spending money in a sensible way on defined priorities, and that there are systems of accountability and clear lines of recourse when there are failures in delivery.

There are many reasons why relationships between community organisations and government are going through a challenging time, and there is no sign that these will ease in the future. There is work to be done individually by the partners, and collectively, to reimagine this relationship. Otherwise we risk a situation where the various parties retreat to their own corners and simply shoot arrows and bicker about these issues.

For government, it is important to think carefully about reporting requirements related to contracts and the opportunity costs that these have. Is there a clear sense of the types of outcomes that are sought through particular services, and what data is needed to know when these have been achieved? This cannot be entirely determined in isolation, and engagement with community organisations is a crucial part of this process. There is also an important lesson about making sure that where possible, government is able to act consistently; the charge I hear most often is that government says it wants to collaborate, but in practice does so only when it suits. Working in partnership is incredibly difficult and does require a certain degree of consistent behaviour from both partners.

Community organisations need to take this time as an opportunity to think imaginatively about their new agenda. Rather than simply blaming government, organisations need to think carefully about their missions in the context of this new world of reduced public funding and enhanced accountability structures. What is fundamental to the identity and purpose of their organisation and what are they definitely against? How might they work so that they can best manage their resources; possibly involving working with other community organisations around back office staffing and not doing everything individually. Community organisations have the capacity to determine the sorts of work they engage in and need to take some responsibility for concerns about ‘mission creep’.

Collectively, what is clear is that the future will be ever more challenging for vulnerable and disadvantaged Victorians. Public funding is also likely to remain under tight watch, and government-funded contracts are likely to remain important for enabling community organisations to deliver services to those people facing disadvantage.

“A renewed relationship between the community sector and government may help improve systems and ultimately deliver better outcomes for people facing disadvantage.”

A renewed relationship between the community sector and government may help improve systems and ultimately deliver better outcomes for these groups, but this will not happen at great speed and will involve work by all partners. Governments may need to give thought to their consultation practices, reporting requirements and systems, while community organisations may need to define and stick to their limits for their own sustainability, while also considering how they can collaborate with others to manage funding streams effectively.

Improvements will only emerge from difficulties if we are able to constructively reimagine a way forward, rather than pointing the finger at one another and retreating to our own corners.

Helen Dickinson is Associate Professor Public Governance at the Melbourne School of Government, University of Melbourne

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