The world’s first Compact between government and the voluntary and community sector - in the UK

By Mike Hanson [1]

In the last issue of VOSESA Focus , we showed that there are various ways government and community-based organisations can work together to fight HIV/AIDS in South Africa. This article discusses a deeper and more formal relationship between government and the voluntary and community sector in the United Kingdom.

Increasingly, partnerships are seen as the way forward to tackle the challenges of the 21st century. Through collaborative efforts, diverse resources can be harnessed to tackle social welfare and development issues in ways that target the contributions of partners, prevent duplication of effort and build understanding between organisations.

However, building effective partnerships is not easy. They require understanding and mutual agreement about the distinctive contribution each partner is expected to make; partners need to reach agreement about the use of resources; and they must be open to change and prepared to accept that there are different ways of doing things.

Voluntary and community organisations are big business in the UK and they have a long history. The voluntary sector accounts for one in 25 full-time paid jobs and 10 per cent of all service employment. The total contribution of volunteers to the economy is estimated to be £2-billion (approximately R250-billion) a year. Some seven million people serve on voluntary-organisation management committees, and a further million serve as NGO trustees. There are nearly 19 000 community buildings in England and Wales that are used by 10 per cent of the population. For every R10 invested in volunteers, there is a return of between R20 and R80.

The voluntary sector brings considerable energy and resources to social affairs and can offer flexible approaches to society’s challenges. It also gives voice to the many different communities it serves.

Inevitably, given its overall responsibility for social policy, the voluntary and community sector must work with central and local government, and a framework to guide this partnership has been put in place.

Aims of a Compact

In November 1998, the UK government, with the support of all major political parties, signed a written Compact with the voluntary sector. The Compact, an agreement that defines the partnership, operates at a national level by creating guidelines for government departments to encourage their work with the voluntary sector. It also works at a local level, engaging local authorities and organisations. At this stage, 90 per cent of local authority areas have established compacts.

The primary aim of the Compact is to define the mutual roles and responsibilities of government and the voluntary sector. For its part, the government has agreed to:

  • promote the work of the voluntary sector among government departments and agencies;
  • respect the independence of the voluntary and community sector;
  • consult early enough to make a difference; and
  • recognise the costs of funding service delivery; this means that voluntary organisations should be funded on a full-cost-recovery basis.

The commitments of the voluntary sector are to:

  • promote the Compact;
  • develop open and accountable organisations;
  • involve all stakeholders and embrace diversity; and
  • contribute to public policy in a constructive way.

The Compact has produced codes of practice to guide the way partnerships work. These cover issues like funding, volunteering (how to remove barriers, defining volunteerism, implementing good practice) and local working arrangements (e.g. developing local strategies, openness to public scrutiny, and producing local public-service agreements).

A national commissioner will be appointed to oversee the operation of the Compact, a Compact training programme has been launched, and a Compact Mediation Scheme will resolve any disputes that may arise in the operation of partnerships.

Impact of the Compact

So, has the Compact made any difference? Supporters of the Compact point to changes that have taken place in the way central government departments work. For example:

  • The Department of Trade and Industry has produced a toolkit designed to assist social enterprises to bid for public contracts and to guide them through procurement processes.
  • The Inland Revenue is creating partnerships with voluntary organisations to tell people about social benefits and tax credits they may be entitled to.
  • The Department for Education and Skills is involving local groups in the operation of Connexions, a one-stop-shop for services for young people.
  • A £90 000 (R1.25-million) fund called Futurebuilders has been established to strengthen the voluntary sector.

At a local level, the Compacts have succeeded in changing the face of service delivery and highlighting the needs of different groups, for example:

  • In Cheshire, a local multiple sclerosis group worked with the local authority to build a hydrotherapy pool.
  • A local council in London changed its funding policy to the voluntary sector from annual to three-year grants to give organisations a firmer foundation for planning.
  • The local authority in the Isle of Wight opened up its internal training to the voluntary sector.
  • In Sheffield, the Black Community Forum has been involved in defining service-delivery standards.
  • In Norfolk, child-care provision has improved because of the efforts of the voluntary sector.

Although there are numerous examples of practices having changed for the better, the Compact also has its critics. Some argue that fundamental attitudes within government have not changed and that securing funds for the voluntary sector is as difficult a process as ever. Some suggest that a new organisational layer has been created without real benefit. Others question the commitment of government departments to the exercise.

But it is early days yet. The Compact is succeeding in building a greater awareness of the resources and professionalism of the voluntary sector. It is also building understanding that government cannot do everything, and that service delivery and policy formulation can be greatly improved by the involvement of the voluntary sector.

[1] Mike Hanson is an independent consultant with extensive experience in the voluntary and community sector in the UK, and in the field of Further Education and Training in South Africa.