Mad world, my masters: CVS says no to transforming local infrastructure

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Adur Voluntary Action has opted out of bids for the transforming local infrastructure fund. Adrian Barritt explains the practical and philosophical concerns that led to the decision

What is infrastructure anyway?

To me, infrastructure used to mean something military, or the foundations of a building – until I studied social science. Then I learned that it signified the networks of socio-economic relationships, shared understandings and support mechanisms that make community life possible – until I discovered New Labour.  Then I learned that that it meant a particular kind of organisation that exists to support other ones, but doesn’t actually deliver anything of its own – until I discovered the ConLib coalition government. Then I learned that it had become infra dig (hey ho!) to use the term “infrastructure” in polite society, and that I should say the words “support and development” in the hushed tones that one would use to refer to a terminally ill person.

Well “development” is half of “community development”, know what I mean?

Respect the foundations of voluntary action

“Foundations” is a pretty sensible meaning, so let’s stick with that. Consider its links with the term “meta”, as developed in Schumacher’s classic book Small is Beautiful in relation to meta-economics: the philosophic assumptions behind any economic theory (Shumacher’s target in 1973 was the neo-classical, heavily growth-oriented economics which is still driving current government policy).

So we’re talking about the foundations of local voluntary action, not its resourcing, cost-effectiveness, social value,  capacity to “deliver” services, or indeed use value to political parties. A consideration of the foundations of local voluntary action moves our perspective towards the worlds of people who are actually engaged in local action. Surely we should show respect for both people and organisations as ends in themselves?

The buck stops with the community

But hey! Words are the first casualty of politics. Those of us active within our communities want to think beyond the next re-definition, funding initiative or state policy brand image – yes?  Otherwise we end up re-defining our own ignorance and re-writing our permanently circular strategies in doomed attempts to mirror the incoherence being thrown at us. The buck stops – after the next election if not before it – with the local community. The half-finished, prematurely cut, never-evaluated policies blow like dry leaves, rustling around our groups and people.

So it is with the latest invention that would never make it through Dragon’s Den and into commercial production: the Transforming Local Infrastructure Programme. Whippers-in are  NAVCA and other national umbrella bodies.

Lemming partnerships

Local voluntary groups in their hundreds are currently devoting their charitable resources to engage with this madcap offering. The lemming evidence is stark: take a look at the website showing expressions of interest.

Even if many drop out, or are forced out because they can’t pass through the ludicrously easy hoops in the crazy timescales, that still leaves an awful lot of rushed collective staff and trustee time being spent on cobbling together “partnerships” to prepare competitive bids which may bring in one-off (ie unsustainable) awards for (have you guessed it yet?):

  • Trying to create structures which provide a wider range of support, networking and volunteering brokerage at less financial cost to the state
  • Producing “stronger local leadership” and better partnerships with the local state and businesses
  • The “transformation” of organisations into ones that are more efficient, effective and learning – and less dependent on state cash

Mistake one

These three aims are ancient rotting chestnuts. We’re surely not expected to continue to be motivated, as volunteers, by fading clarion calls to economy, efficiency, effectiveness, better networking, partnership with state and business (sic)?  Cue in local strategic partnerships, CVSs, community foundations, and community development’s role in helping to grow stronger, more egalitarian social infrastructure, even though the transforming local infrastructure scheme doesn’t mention these.

This isn’t a party political point. A solid effort has been directed into these concerns for decades, and much of it should be sustained. But despite being probably the number one buzz word, “partnership” is no panacea, and unless it is accompanied by organisational self-reliance, independence and strength, it morphs into an association where power and control is unequally distributed. That ultimately means less pluralism, a more corporate structure, and less motivation for voluntary engagement. Strong, independent local organisations are needed before anyone talks about partnerships.

Mistake two

Local voluntary action is not all about money, so it’s not all about cost effectiveness. It is about how resources of all kinds are used. Local voluntary action is about relationships between people and groups, it’s about organisational cultures, a genuine sense of ownership, autonomy to be inventive. It’s about independence and local accountability. It’s about crafting organisations that draw people in because they enjoy being involved, enjoy trading mutual aid between groups as well as individuals. It’s not fundamentally about managerialism or structures to deliver managed services.

In short, it’s about an entirely different culture to the one promoted by this transforming local infrastructure initiative.

Mistake three

Local support and development organisations vary widely, and many also provide direct services, run community hubs, operate community development projects, and are key parts of their local communities.

There is a basic distinction between an organisation which perceives itself as a part of its own community, and one which “delivers” support services to that community. The first is directly accountable to local people, with a tiny hierarchy, narrow salary differentials, and considerable volunteer/trustee involvement is day-to-day work. The second is structured much more like a commercial business, accountability is less direct (if there is any), there is a bigger hierarchy and wider salary differentials, and probably less direct trustee/volunteer involvement in activities.

So the meta-theory behind this initiative is crude and destructive, because it fails to allow for the very diversity of organisational scale, function and culture that the Localism Bill promises to encourage. The not-so-latent message: join in and do it our way – or else!

Forced competition

Sadly – and don’t ask me why – the goal of this initiative is forced structural change. It’s about mergers, so-called scale economies, big is beautiful. It’s about enforcing competition. It’s about loss of local autonomy and independence. It’s about bureaucratic management structures rather than community rootedness. It’s about the hypocrisy that threatens to wreck the good proposals within the government’s localism agenda. It’s about narrow mindedness, a refusal to recognise locally chosen and diverse ways of doing things. It’s about money rather than people. It’s about bullying,  through use of a crazily tight time scale that rides rough shod over ongoing local developments that should be permitted  time – their own time – to bear fruit. It’s about government fear, fear of challenge and sincere campaigning for equalities and communities.

Frankly, were the goal to undermine local voluntary action, this would be an excellent approach.  Come off it, coalition government – you really can do better than this!

We won’t be druv

This is the end, my friend; the final funded attempt by central government to influence, mould, control, and make use of local support and development bodies, like CVSs, RCCs and volunteer centres. Well hurray! Like any sensible dragon in the den, I know when there’s absolutely no business case to invest my organisation’s resources.

There’s an old Sussex saying: You may push and shove, but we won’t be druv. We’re out.

Read Adrian Barritt’s point-by-point critique of the transforming local infrastructure programme.

See also the viewpoint article by Sarah Lamb, AVA trustee, on the dilemmas facing the voluntary sector right now.

Let us know if you agree or wildly disagree! Comments are open below…

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