The importance of infrastructure for partnership working

Big Assist ConferenceLast week I attended the Big Assist National Conference. Big Assist is a programme managed by NCVO which offers support to voluntary sector infrastructure organisations. It was interesting to talk to other delegates about how infrastructure organisations, and voluntary organisations more generally, are engaging with public bodies. It’s fair to say there was general agreement on two points: firstly, that infrastructure is going through an immensely challenging time, and secondly, that its importance to cross-sector partnership working cannot be overstated.
 
The results of Compact Voice’s annual survey, which we will be reporting on in the next couple weeks, show that voluntary sector infrastructure organisations are the most common signatories of local Compact agreements. This is no surprise; we regularly hear about collaborations between public bodies and voluntary organisations which are made possible only because the local infrastructure organisation facilitated engagement between the sectors. Given the pivotal role they play, it’s deeply concerning that the last few years have seen numerous infrastructure organisations having to close.
 
The conference provided several examples of successful partnerships which might never have happened were it not for the presence of infrastructure organisations. In the morning’s keynote speech delegates heard about a social prescribing service in Rotherham through which GPs signpost patients to a range of non-clinical services provided by voluntary and community organisations. The service has led to massive reductions in A&E attendance and hospital admissions. Rotherham Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) had seen the need to fund such a service, but, by their own admission, had no idea what was out there in terms of the services the local voluntary sector could provide. The need to tap into a network of voluntary sector providers saw them turn to Voluntary Action Rotherham, with whom they had built a strong relationship over the past few years. It’s hard to imagine how a social prescribing service such as this could have flourished without the involvement of an infrastructure organisation.
 
Similarly crucial was the role of Hunts Forum, the voluntary sector infrastructure organisation for Huntingdonshire, in chairing a consortium of voluntary sector providers. In a morning workshop, we heard how Cambridgeshire and Peterborough CCG’s decision to place all voluntary sector services for older people into a single £1 million contract had necessitated the creation of this consortium. Hunts Forum’s Chief Executive Julie Farrow talked about how her organisation had been uniquely positioned to act as chair, given their ability to hold their own with larger organisations, and ensure that smaller organisations had a voice. With commissioners increasingly favouring large, aggregated contracts, the need for such consortia is only likely to grow, and it is infrastructure organisations who appear best equipped to establish them.
 
It’s clear that the funding environment for infrastructure organisations is currently very difficult. Indeed, a number of delegates I spoke to remarked on the various challenges they encountered when dealing with commissioners. However, there was also an awareness that these same commissioners are experiencing their own pressures. Like their voluntary sector counterparts, they are having to respond to greater need with fewer resources. An excellent talk from Simon Bowkett, Chief Executive of Exeter CVS, made the argument that the difficulties both sectors are facing has heightened the need for cross-sector collaboration. In other words, commissioners need the voluntary sector as it can often provide the solutions to many of the problems commissioners are facing. His message to infrastructure organisations who are struggling to engage with public bodies was to wait because, he believes, they will have to start talking to you eventually.

- Ben Anstis, Engagement and Communications Assistant, Compact Voice
 

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