I DETECT a spring in the step of many voluntary organisations. It could just be jumpiness in advance of the government spending review, or maybe we are starting to believe our own rhetoric? But there is at least some evidence that our messages are getting through, that doing things differently means a better deal for the sector and the many things it stands for.
The election result brought forward what could be a rather exciting time for governance in Scotland. The campaign that preceded it was peppered with voluntary sector ideas and experience from the grassroots about what people want and what would make a difference.
Then the Christie Commission Report was published – a far from radical prospect which somehow found consensus around a story of personal and community empowerment which is really our story. Form after function is the right approach but there was no concealing the underpinning message – the public sector must reform and re-orientate itself around joined up, preventative and asset-based approaches.
Unlike the miserable agenda down south, we also continue to enjoy strong political support from the Scottish Government with a growing appreciation of the need to spread that understanding across the public sector. I expect that my colleagues in the delegation to meet the Cabinet Secretary for Finance later this week will, like me, be in a positive frame of mind.
It’s been good to hear so many examples recently of positive things our sectordoes that are right on the money. At their best, voluntary organisations do provide efficient and cost-effective interventions which reduce demand for more expensive services. They promote self help and are getting better at developing mutual options where people help each other – and they carry the twin advantages of reach and trust into even the most difficult arenas.
So the sector is again turning its minds to being upbeat, the future’s about to get brighter; the argument is largely won; history, politics and now even economics are on our side. What can go wrong?
Beware the dead cat bounce. It’s an economists phrase to describe a temporary recovery, an illusion before a long decline. There may even be an economic dead cat bou
nce of sorts on just now, even if a few people are fooled into thinking that recovery is just around the corner. I’m no psychotherapist, but I would hazard a guess that the collective third sector psyche has probably been damaged by too many false dawns, too many bounces – the third sector can be very susceptible to optimism.
The forces which conspire against doing things differently are far from defeated. They are simply re-grouping in order to retain their grip on the public purse and their old fashioned way of doing things. As I write, new ways are being invented to undermine personalisation, new cabals are meeting to preserve the interests of acute medicine, new strategies are being hatched to maintain the status quo of 200 public agencies and the industry they have invented which is called partnership. There’s even a new group of demography deniers who argue, despite what the IMF, Uncle Tom Cobly and all have understood, that we can just continue as before.
Beware too the manipulation of language. We’ve become used to localism being somehow associated with the largest local authorities in Western Europe and our health service being pre-occupied with illness. Now it seems that the promised integration of health and care will turn out exactly the opposite, two systems, workforces and budgets. Beware co-production (we’re still in charge), social investment (private profiteering at our expense), and even charities (local government controlled companies). These are desperate ploys to retain resources and power where it is.
With deadlock over public sector pension reform, no-compulsory redundancies and Living Wage policies spreading across the public sector – but not to the people and organisations they so-called partner with – it’s going to be a tough spending round. Business as usual singles out the peripheral and easily disposable (cheap and preventative) for the biggest share of the cuts.
Even the most sympathetic cabinet secretary for finance can only go so far with his budget proposals in the face of the mantra about local decision making and the primacy of so-called Community Planning. We may have won the argument but the war is fought out in and between health boards and local authorities across Scotland where the dominance of the public sector ethos is at its strongest. And we don’t have our troops well positioned to engage on such a scale. We may have won some battles but the third sector could still lose this war.
But for once I think the optimists have a case. It is slowly dawning on large swathes of the public sector that they have nowhere else to run, whatever the forces of reaction might say and do. There is no Plan B that will feed the public purse to meet escalating costs; there is no magic PFI to continue to build hospitals and prisons without paying for them; there are no market-based savings once the race to the bottom has been run. Working creatively with people and communities, taking a bottom up approach to development is the only show in town.
The analysis is clear and unambiguous. Government cannot continue to spend up to 40 per cent of its declining resources on what Christie called “failure demand”. That is the single proposition which must lead the spending review.