Your voice and the Compact

Tom ElkinsLast week, we published information about the extent of the cuts to the voluntary and community sector. Based on the information provided by Freedom of Information requests we submitted to 351 local areas, the results provided some key intelligence about how local areas were being affected by spending cuts.
 
Next week, we will be publishing information about the health of local Compacts in England, based on the most comprehensive survey we have conducted. The results show a broadly positive – if mixed – picture about how the Compact is faring, particularly in challenging times.
 
We have gathered this information because it will help us work with local Compact groups more effectively in the future; supporting, sharing, and challenging as need (and our capacity) enables. We are also keen to provide this information as our members and networks have often asked us about it; with the demise of the Commission for the Compact, such local intelligence has been in high demand.
 
Expect further activities from us as a result of this data over the next few weeks and months, and let us know what more we can and should be doing with it.
 
As well as the local picture, another issue our members frequently express concern about is the level of compliance to the Compact displayed by central Government. We regularly receive emails from a concerned Compact officer highlighting the short timescale for a consultation, or the lack of reference to the Compact in a seemingly relevant document or policy announcement.
 
We do our best to challenge or work with government on some of these issues and would love to have the capacity to do more. On our website you can see examples of this engagement; for example working with the Department of Health to support the application process for their Innovation, Excellence, and Strategic Development fund, seeking assurances from the Government Equality Office about the way they are gathering views on the Equality Act, or responding to consultations on topics affecting the voluntary and community sector.
 
In the future we will be working with Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) on the disproportionate nature of some local spending cuts. We will also be producing guidance and briefing notes on how proposed changes to the health service will affect partnerships, how to work with elected members locally, and publishing our guide to improving and developing local Compacts.
 
Particular concern has been raised by our members about recent announcements by the Office for Civil Society (OCS), specifically about the outcomes from the Modernising Commissioning green paper published last year. At the time, we expressed concern about the short timeframe that this consultation was launched with. We were assured that this timescale was necessary to 'ensure engagement with key public service stakeholders during the short window of opportunity between the Spending Review 2010 and the beginning of the 2011-14 Spending Period.'
 
However, the documents recently published took over seven months to appear, undermining the need for a shortened consultation period. Our members have also pointed out that we haven’t seen a comprehensive assessment of the responses OCS received during the ‘Modernising Commissioning’ consultation period, despite such an assessment being referred to in the Open Public Services white paper.
 
The white paper stated that a response would be published shortly afterward which would 'focus on access to open markets, reducing bureaucratic barriers and improving commissioning across central and local government'. However, the Minister's subsequent open letter to the sector makes reference to an intention to introduce an 'active listening exercise' which will consider these very same issues, with a full response promised in the autumn.
 
Our members - and Compact Voice - are concerned that a lack of clarity about how the sectors views are being considered in policy design, the burden of additional consultation on similar topics, the lack of reference to Compact principles or adherence to its spirit in these announcements has the potential to undermine the relationship between government and the voluntary and community sector.
 
So what can we do to try and address these concerns?

Well, we are in the process of discussing potential activities between Compact Voice and OCS, based on tackling some of these concerns, as well as seeking a commitment for them to endorse and adhere to the meaningful consultation guidance note we recently developed, again based on the views of our members.
 
We are also looking forward to the results from the National Audit Office’s investigation into departmental Compact compliance, though worried that the recently announced delay may negatively impact its ability to influence departments who are required to embed the Compact into their business plans for next year, as the accountability measures commit them to.
 
Further, we are working with both the Local Government Ombudsmen and the Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman to help develop how they can take forward investigations into Compact breaches.
 
But there is always more we could be doing both locally and nationally; and more than we have the capacity to do. It is important that we invest our energies where we can realistically make the most impact; part of that is encouraging our members and networks to challenge bad practice, to work in collaboration and seek to improve, to act as a critical friend, and to share where things have worked well.
 
We hope that the information, briefings and publications mentioned above are useful to help you take these things forward on all of our behalves, and we will be using them to do the same. Let us know about any successes you have, or barriers you encounter. Our strongest asset is our network of members, and good partnerships require action from all parties. We might not always be able to do as much as we - or you - would like us to, but together we can certainly do more. 

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Tom