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October 7, 2009

Can SOAs deliver for our sector?

In our last Briefing, we questioned whether the new Single Outcome Agreements would ever be able to reflect our sector’s interests.  One response received from an LPL supporter paints a fairly depressing picture as she describes a recent encounter with the SOA ‘machinery’ in Stirling.  Another supporter argues that we have been overstating the importance of SOAs and explains why he thinks they won’t be around for long

Two responses from LPL Supporters to the recent article on Single Outcome Agreements
A Local People Leading supporter encounters Stirling’s SOA ‘machinery’
“I have just returned from a seminar in Stirling  entitled ‘How does community learning and development fit with the Stirling Outcome Agreement?’ 
In this presentation, one section listed the members of the Executive Delivery Group who plan, monitor rand scrutinise service delivery leading to the delivery of Stirling ’s Single Outcome Agreement Members of this EDG  were all statutory organisations:  Stirling Council. Scottish Enterprise, NHS Forth Valley, Central Scotland Police, Scottish Govt, Forth Valley College, Stirling University, Loch Lomond& Trossachs National Park.
Not one reference to the voluntary sector …yet many vol. orgs were there.  In my case, representing Forth Valley University of the Third Age, I had gatecrashed as no invitation to attend had been offered…in fact, those in the educational world were unaware of what U3A is.   This may be understandable among the general public but among those who provide formal educational services and quote lifelong learning as their byword, it is evidence of an amazing lack of awareness.  Forth Valley U3A is a co-operative, where members learn for the sake of learning, without formal academic structures, no qualifications are given or required, , and the sharing of expertise and skills of the members provides the teaching and the learning.  Forth Valley U3A is one of very many voluntary organisations which offer learning opportunities, some of whom were present at the event.
I questioned the absence of, for example, the Stirling  Council for  Voluntary Service which might be an appropriate representative of the Third Sector.  The reply was that once EDG was bedded down, and some CVS matters were ironed out, they would be invited.  So there is the answer to ‘Is our voice being heard?’ “
Interest in Single Outcome Agreements is misdirected by LPL supporter, Chris Mitchell
Calling something a Concordat, should not fool us that SOAs came out of anything more than a fairly grubby agreement between the new minority SNP government and COSLA, the umbrella organisation for local authorities. John Swinney MSP offered a ‘light touch’ relationship, relaxing ring fenced budgets – some 5% of Council expenditure –  if they agreed to freeze the Council Tax for three years and so deliver an SNP election pledge. This removed Councils’ decision making on the one remaining, significant, independent source (28% approx.) of local government income. So much for light touch.
The Single Outcome Agreement aims to define the common ground in strategic priorities between each Council and Scottish Government for just one year ahead. However Councils, who we elect to make decisions on local services about which central government lacks the local knowledge, are free to say, “yes, well we understand the national priorities but in our area ‘x’ is more important.”  In practice there are a lot of motherhood and apple pie priorities shared by national and local government that both parties can sign up to relatively easily within an SOA.
Now it would be great if the typical 130 odd SOA indicators of change or targets did become the principal accountability measures between the two levels of government but there has been no bonfire of the performance indicators operated by civil servants, Audit Scotland or the inspectorates that crawl over local authorities, consuming huge amounts of time and energy, and diverting councils’ attention from those they are there to serve: you and I
What’s more, SOAs have spawned a corresponding mini-industry of performance management, in addition to what was there already.  We are at risk of getting diverted by all this, and have even fallen into the trap of thinking that just because we can count something, the number of references in here today gone tomorrow documents, that that ‘thing’ somehow counts.  
But the biggest problem with thinking SOAs are somehow so important is that they get negotiated by local government officers and councillors, pre-occupied by face to face dialogue with central government. But facing that way, they turn their back on the people to whom they should really be accountable, their local citizens.
It is a dangerously undemocratic fallacy for LPLs recent article to suggest that “the SOA is the means by which Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs) agree their strategic priorities for their local area and express those priorities as outcomes to be delivered by the partners, either individually or jointly.”
The trouble is too many people in such partnerships also believe this to be the case, as if caught in the headlights and seeing nothing else. They have forgotten the statutory duty of community planning that Holyrood has placed on councils in partnership with voluntary organisations, their police authorities and local NHS Boards. The Local Government in Scotland Act 2003 placed a duty on Councils to ….
“initiate and facilitiate community planning……and to develop and set out a joint vision with agreed objectives for their area, normally in the form of a Community Plan.”
They must also do this with the aims
“to make sure people and communities are genuinely engaged in the decisions made on public services which affect them, allied to
a commitment from organisations to work together, not apart, in providing better public services”
It goes on to make Community Planning:
        “the key over-arching partnership framework….. to simplify a cluttered landscape …..and to improve the connection between national priorities and those at regional, local and neighbourhood levels”
It is in this context of pursuing long term visions that strategic priorities should be set with realistic and achievable outcomes that local people can identify with and influence. Social enterprises need to be heard more in those local partnerships. Here they should command a sympathetic agenda, get practical support if needed, prove their worth and argue for market opportunities and deliver a social return. That is where the local leadership can and should emerge from. Let’s not place our hopes for social enterprises in the shifting sands of central/local politics which provide only sterile ground in which to get bogged down.  
One senior civil servant said at the start of the SOAs said that ‘light touch’ required a change of culture in central government. He posed the question, ‘Would his colleagues be able to keep their hands off?’ I believe there is as much chance of Sir Humphrey changing his pinstripes, as the SOAs being around in any useful form in five years time. That’s a generous attention span for most Victoria Quay initiatives. Most Ministers and influential civil servants seldom hold the same responsibility and interest for that long.