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July 12, 2022

No more soundbites

Years ago I worked in a large local authority and was closely involved with the funding arrangements for the city’s voluntary sector. I had previously only worked on the ‘other side of the table’ and so the whole experience was something of a revelation. It was in the era of Service Level Agreements which seemed to be shorthand for, ‘if you want our money, you’ll do as we tell you’. The language may have changed, but these attitudes and cultures run deep. SCVO’s Kirsten Hogg has lost patience with politicians inventing promising soundbites that change nothing on the ground.

Kirsten Hogg, SCVO

At the Gathering a few weeks ago, the first minister talked about needing a “third sector first” approach. 

She used this same phrase during our pre-election hustings last year, and at that time I scribbled it down excitedly, but a year on, with key opportunities to make changes to better support the sector missed, this sounds more like a soundbite than a commitment. 

And to be honest, could it ever be more than that? Assuming that it doesn’t mean putting the third sector ahead of other sectors in some sort of societal pecking order, what would we be first in line for?  

We could be first in line to provide services commissioned by the public sector, as (kind of) suggested by the STUC in relation to care services. In some cases that could create positive opportunities for the sector, but knowing that the recent Scottish Government Resource Spending Review cites procurement as a way to bring about cost savings, with very little mention of the equally important function of using purchasing power to buy in quality, I might have some reservations about this being our goal. 

In fact, I don’t think we want to be ‘first’ at all. What we saw working so well during the pandemic was when we were equal. When the expertise and contacts and money that we brought to the table were recognised as just as valuable as the resources of our public (and private) sector partners and we stopped worrying about any pecking order and just did what needed to be done to support communities. 

Audit Scotland has highlighted this in several reports now, and recommended to public sector partners that they maintain (or perhaps revive) that approach as we deal with the equally important crises facing our communities now, but sadly this seems harder to achieve. 

One of the challenges in bringing about this parity of esteem is, I think, that stakeholders still see the sector as an add on – a nice to have. Despite all of the warm words about the importance of the sector, this also came across from the first minister.

When challenged on whether multi-year funding could be achieved for the sector given the relatively small amounts of money that flow from the Scottish Government to voluntary organisations, she talked about the low level of “discretionary spend” that there is within the Scottish Budget once things like health and education are accounted for; this is true, of course, but misses the point that some parts of the sector are making enormous contributions to health, education and other areas where society expects spending to be prioritised – we’re not a discretionary add on. 

The first minister said repeatedly that she’s open to conversations about how we do things differently. In relation to the sector she said there was a need to “rethink” and focus on how Scottish Government supports the sector. While I’d very much welcome the latter, I respectfully disagree that any rethinking is required. 

From Christie onwards we have report after report that tells us what needs to be done to ensure that voluntary organisations have the stability and certainty that they need to be able to play the key role that they do: longer term investment; support for core costs; and an equal seat at the table. 

What is required is a movement beyond the warm words to action. 

Kirsten Hogg is SCVO’s head of policy, research and campaigns.