From co-operation to competition and fragmentation

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Listen to us cartoonThe experience of neighbourhood youth projects in Newcastle – In our latest story about commissioning, Michael Bell from the Patchwork Project in Newcastle describes the experience of local groups bidding against the big boy Barnardo’s..


Several years ago nine neighbourhood-based projects from acrossNewcastlestarted to meet in order to find ways of working better together, to support each other, to share our hopes and fears. Around 2005-6, as funding began to be directed at specific groups of young people seen as needing special attention (‘targeted youth work’), the group set out to demonstrate to the local authority, to schools, to the Connexions Service and Youth Offending Teams that its projects could take on this work. Since they were already working in the neighbourhoods and had relationships with the young people concerned, they saw themselves as best placed to persuade them to participate.

Not that the workers in these projects were altogether happy with the targeted approach. Often it came at the expense of reducing funding for open-access work which all of the projects were providing anyway. Indeed it was just this open-access approach which often made the projects acceptable to the young people who were considered by other ‘specialist’ services as ‘hard to reach’, ‘NEET’ or simply off the radar of all their systems. Connexions, for example, had a list of approximately 100 young people who were simply missing from any kind of register – since leaving the school rolls they had seemingly disappeared. The neighbourhood projects argued that these young people were very likely to be known to them and asked for access to the list. In the event, the projects turned out to have contact with over 90 of the young people on the list. The rest were either in custody or, in a couple of cases, had died.

This evidence, supported by other arguments, resulted over two years (2008-2010) in the projects in the group delivering Connexions work using ‘positive activities’ funding aimed at these young people. They also provided targeted work for years 10 and 11 young people not attending any form of schooling, with the aim of supporting their early transition into further education, training and work related activities.


At the end of this period – late 2011 – when, like many others, the local authority decided to tender out this positive activities funding through an early intervention grant, several officers in children’s services encouraged the projects group to form themselves into a consortium. Not only did the group see themselves as by far the best placed to deliver to the tender brief. It also felt it had little choice given that projects would be losing funding because of the shift to tendering. Within short time frames a bid was prepared with the agreement of all the management committees involved. This went ahead despite nagging concerns about the lack of consultation with young people themselves and with the communities – concerns which, on hindsight, many of those involved came to feel should have been taken more seriously including , in advance, challenging how this aspect of the bidding process was being carried out. Given that the consortium members were all neighbourhood-based and so could provide an existing infrastructure for delivery – one important funding criterion – they were also surprised that other bidders had not contacted any of them during the bidding process to see if they were interested in being a part of these other bids.

Losing and challenging

In the event the projects consortium heard 3rd April 2012 that it had lost the bid to a consortium headed by Barnardos – a national body with no prior track record in the areas where the work was to take place. It then challenged this outcome on the grounds that small voluntary sector groups were disadvantaged by the process. The option of a legal challenge was also considered but rejected on the grounds that the costs involved were too high for groups of the size making up the group.

After six months and many meetings with officers and a 2000+ petition, late August 2012 the Barnardos consortium had still not started to deliver. Work that the local groups could have got going on day one of the contract was thus now unlikely to begin until October. At this point it also emerged that the Barnardos consortium were planning to sub-contract the work out to other groups – something which the local consortium also challenged on the grounds that one of the criteria of the original bid was that sub-contractors had to be named in any bid. After further challenges, the consortium was told that any organisation that had completed a competency form in the bidding process could be used as a sub contractor – including, all the local projects which had done this as part of their local consortium bid.

By now, sustaining the challenge was becoming too demanding for the local consortium whose strength had always been in its unity. Its challenge had got it a hearing from the head of children’s services which had resulted 3rd September 2012 in a commitment from him to scrutinise the progress of the winning organisation. The consortium also asked that the whole procurement process in relation to neighbourhood services be reconsidered, especially the funding for toddlers groups. Totalling around £8 million across the city this was far more than the consortium’s £600,000 bid for the youth work projects. The head of children’s services also agreed to putting back the time scale for commissioning this funding to September 2013 so that voluntary groups could be consulted more closely.

Falling apart

At this point it emerged that, without informing other projects in the local consortium, the two largest members of it had decided to bid for the sub contracts. Other members of the consortium saw this as undermining their challenge to the local authority because it allowed the winning consortium to argue that they were now able to deliver the contract. Once the two break-away organisations had been awarded the sub-contracts, other local projects no longer felt they could trust them and the local consortium fell apart. The offer of money by the two new subcontractors to other groups as a way of justifying their actions further undermined the consortium’s unity.

And all for what gain?

So what was it that the sub contractors won? The original contract covered four areas – one with an allocation of £200,000, the others with funding in the range of the £100,000-£150,000. The sub contracts were worth £30-40,000 per area. Each contract required the delivery of eight sessions, reaching in total between 300 and 500 young people aged 16-19. This averaged out at around £100 per 2-3 hour session over a yearly period – though the funding did not cover all the costs.

On the ground this meant two youth workers per session having to find and keep contact with about 10 new young people each week, though with contract funding which did not allow for running costs nor management nor admin nor base costs.

The unreality of this brief reflected a remote social work agency’s lack of understanding of how local youth work gets its results – or the stupid application of a targets regime in return for peanuts. It further reflects a decision making process that neglects local authority officers knowledge and hard won intelligence.

The outcomes …

  • Good collaborative work amongst neighbourhood projects begun in the city many years before is jettisoned in order to accommodate commissioning.
  • Children’s services – themselves facing even more cuts – likely to lose statutory play and youth work services at a time when small voluntary neighbourhood-based youth work projects had never been more needed.
  • Those who neglected to do it at the start, now wishing they had spoken up earlier for their voluntary sector colleagues rather than, without critical voice, contributing to commissioning and the competitive culture.
  • Less trust and less collaboration amongst colleagues, with their values and core purpose under threat and the role of the charitable organisation at a tipping point.

… and one participant’s learning and conclusions

There are people still meeting together in order to position themselves as a consortium to win money at the expense of their colleagues, reflecting values focused on competition – in their process destroying other projects. This assumes we can play this game, be canny and become business like – while what in fact we are doing is, firstly, making it too easy for decision makers to choose commissioning rather than use grant aid to allocate what is public monies; and, secondly, exposing ourselves and the neighbourhoods we represent to far stronger competitors.

These views are those of most of those who started out as members of the Neighbourhood Youth Projects grouping.

The beginnings of the group in 2005/6 came out of the vision and determination of one man – sadly no longer with us – and a few likeminded colleagues. We hope that, in the current culture of competition and the characteristics that it produces, people like him will again emerge who genuinely believe in collaboration, to challenge and withstand this odious approach to the care and support of the most marginal of our population.

Michael Bell

The Patchwork Project,Newcastle upon Tyne

November 2012

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