I’ve been looking at Birmingham City Council’s Third Sector Strategy, currently in draft, with a view to responding formally to the consultation.
I suppose I’m actually quite a new third sector person. When I came to work for Gateway Family Services nearly four years ago it was the first time I had actually been a true third sector employee; up to that point I’d worked in the Public Sector.
Yes, I’ll admit it, I was – and, until then, had always been – a Council worker. However, I had always worked in regeneration or community development. I had lots of contact with community groups, activists, voluntary organisations, etc, and my admiration for the sector – and my allegiance to it – grew from these contacts.
Equally I became very aware of how the Council and the third sector viewed each other with a combination of frustration, animosity, envy, admiration, and a recognition that there is a need to rub along. (Just for clarification, it was more than one council I worked for; and never Birmingham, although the issues were always the same.)
Reading the strategy
So what did I make of the draft strategy? Well, it feels like it gets off to a good start.
The introduction acknowledges the long standing relationship between BCC and the third sector, and the value this brings. It talks about the support from the council to the sector and what the sector has been able to achieve as a result of this support. It then talks about the current challenges in honest terms, and outlines the necessity for a change in our relationship.
The introduction also outlines the Council’s recognition that it needs the third sector – something that perhaps hasn’t been said clearly enough before. OK, it doesn’t actually use those words, but the essence is there:
…the third sector is becoming increasingly important in supporting the council to achieve its priorities.
The way I read this is that, for the Council, the third sector is now more valuable than ever.
Then though – and here’s where the chance to be positive and engaging starts to melt away – it says:
The aim of this strategy is to improve the effectiveness of our relationship with the third sector in order to develop a vibrant and sustainable third sector infrastructure within the city…
From my viewpoint, there is no need to develop the infrastructure. Birmingham already has a vibrant third sector. In fact, it isn’t just vibrant, it’s exceptional, and cause for great celebration! But the strategy falls short of acknowledging this. There’s still a feeling of “council knows best”, something for which the council was explicitly criticised in the Kerslake review.
The strategy goes on to identify some things that need to change, in particular “partnerships” and “involving the third sector in commissioning and delivering”. However, when you look at the detail, it turns into “what can the third sector do for the council?” The strategy refers to “two-way communication”, but I can only see it going one way here.
We commit to: Strengthening collaboration and generating ideas with the third sector at a high level by further developing two-way communication routes between us. This will enable them to feed in local intelligence to help shape our understanding of need, gaps in service and the quality of services. This will include publishing a Policy Prospectus and engaging with the sector earlier in planning our policy and procurement activities.
My understanding of part of what happens when a partnership is brokered is that both parties lay out their offer. So what’s the offer to the third sector here? It’s already been clearly acknowledged that we shouldn’t expect financial resource, but the council has the power to make commitments that would give us an advantage. An advantage that I think they’re trying to say we deserve!
A missed opportunity?
My feeling is that the strategy as it stands at the moment misses the mark. It could be an opportunity for a full, frank, cards-on-the-table sort of conversation. It would be refreshing to see the council being more honest and saying, “this is where we are and it’s new territory to us. However it’s not so new to you, so we need your help. How can we work together better?”
Over many years, organisations like Gateway have had to get focussed, get savvy, become more business minded. We can prove that we solve particular issues the council cares about. We work specifically with the communities that the council highlights and we save money!
So this is how I will be responding. Let’s see a true recognition of the sector’s vibrancy, an acknowledgement of its expertise, and some commitments that will really make a difference.
The consultation runs until 2nd March. Have your say via the Be Heard website.