Say what you mean and what you think

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A contract with the local council has led a welfare rights service away from assessing and meeting community needs

A consortium of four different organisations – three registered local charities and one national organisation – successfully bid to run a welfare rights and community development service in a large inner city borough. It is a diverse project with a telephone enquiry line, a casework team, two professional advocates, and a community development unit working to prevent people from being isolated. It employs 18 people, not all full time, and it spreads itself fairly thin. It is also part of the local authority’s benefits take-up campaign for which the council has an in-house team which refers work to the project.

Adam* came into post six weeks after the service began. He describes himself as a middle-manager who manages the project. Adam is employed by the lead agency in the consortium, which is one of the local charities. What came over to him very strongly from his immediate boss was that if this contract had not been won his employing organisation might have folded.

On awarding the contract, the council wanted work to start in four weeks. The CEO of the lead agency agreed. The project was not ready – people were not in post, facilities were not there, and a backlog was brought over with employees transferred from organisations that previously had the contract for the benefit take-up campaign.

Adam says there’s a supine attitude to commissioners: “A lot of what we’ve got could have been negotiated differently. It’s something that the voluntary sector is generally not very good at. They’re glad to get the work and accept whatever it is.”

The consortium has got the contract for two years with a possible extension of one year and then a re-tender. Adam says: “We’re trying to come to terms with our work and build up our work and our reputation. We’ll get half-way through the contract before we get to terms with it and then, of course, some staff will be looking at the end of the contract and wondering what they should do in their employment. That’s an inherent problem.”

At the end of the council’s contracts with other agencies there were no transitional arrangements for the benefits take-up campaign. Adam says that as soon as the project began the council were referring cases that were two months old: “They couldn’t allocate cases with the outward going providers because they couldn’t take on more work.  The clients had been in the dark for two months since they had originally asked for help. We had a backlog of 250 cases on day one and we’ve never recovered from that, so we’ll have a lot of unhappy clients.”

The council’s in-house benefits take up team, who also do casework, lost 33% of their capacity in the cuts so they wanted to refer a larger number of cases to Adam’s project. Rather than allocate increasing numbers of cases and overloading the caseworkers, Adam has accumulated a waiting list. This has resulted in a dispute with the council over what a reasonable workload for caseworkers is.

The council did not issue a contract to the project. All the consortium has is the specification they tendered for in which there are a few sentences about the benefits take-up campaign. In monitoring meetings with the council a disproportionate amount of time is spent talking about the take-up campaign. The meetings include four commissioners, one grants officer and Adam: “After a couple of meetings you realise that the council officers don’t understand the service they’ve commissioned.”

With the benefits take-up campaign, cases are re-assigned from the council’s in-house team to the project team. The cases keep appearing on an electronic data management system. They are re-assigned irrespective of what the workload is at the time. Adam says: “In a way why doesn’t the council just have it all in-house? What is the advantage of splitting it? It just creates a logistical problem; it’s not seamless any more. I think the answer to that is probably they think we work cheaper than they do, they get a higher salary and pensions and so forth. I think that’s a false economy.

“If the council could have closed circuit television in the case work team room, they would. It’s an issue of independence and of diversity because the voluntary sector I used to work in would hold the council to account about welfare rights – they were another sort of representation for the local community.

“Now we’re working as sub-contractors to the council. Their welfare benefits campaign has eclipsed the other welfare rights work. The project works with lots of clients with disabilities – the disability living allowance claim form is over 40 pages long; a home visit can take an afternoon. The case work team have been spending 100% of their time on benefits take-up so the general public have less diverse services. It looks good for the council because they can say they’ve brought all this money into the borough but the community have other needs that are not being met.”

In the project Adam says that the CEO, directors, managers and trustees largely talk about managing the contract and meeting the requirements of the commissioners, hardly ever about the clients and their communities. “That is not healthy,” says Adam “That is really the council having a monopoly over the services that they didn’t have when the voluntary sector was healthy and was accountable to their communities instead of to the commissioners.”

Adam feels very angry that the most poor and vulnerable people in the community are not getting the service they deserve and need, and he is angry with his contemporaries in the voluntary and community sector. He says that none of the reasons he chose the voluntary sector over working in the statutory sector apply now. “Our generation have given it all away, failed to negotiate, been rather supine with these issues because if we don’t challenge the council about it they’re not going to be challenged by anybody else. I will be very pleased to see the back of the paid voluntary sector.”

“What would make a difference is if people realised there is absolutely no evidence that commissioning produces better outcomes than grant aid, and realised how cost effective grant aid was. And if they realised that having as many as five people monitoring one service is a cost in itself.”

Adam’s message to others in the community and voluntary sector is “say what you mean and what you think.”

Adam was talking to Nazreen A Subhan in June 2012 as part of NCIA’s stories project.

*Adam’s name has been changed

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