Engaging communities in the new economy – Observatory conference debate

Engaging communities in the new economySupport the community organisations who are working on the ground, was a strong theme in both workshops on ‘engaging communities in the new economy’ at the Observatory’s 2009 Annual Conference.

The workshop heard from voices working with communities in the region who articulated their frustrations in having to fit their work around funders’ requirements, rather than funders coming to them and saying ‘how can we support you to do what you do?’

Third sector organisations perhaps need to also be stronger in articulating the impact and benefits of their work.

While there is understanding of the need of funders to see quantifiable outcomes, there is a risk that this can incentivise providers to work with those with fewer barriers, thereby hitting more targets but not working with the most excluded.

There is a need to be able to put a quantifiable cost benefit on the diversion of people from other services.

For example, compare the cost of keeping someone in prison or on benefits with the cost of funding high quality organisations to work with them in the long-term and help them stay in work. The social return on investment needs to be easier to illustrate.

The workshop was chaired by Sharon Palmer of Regional Action West Midlands who emphasised the importance of the third sector in providing a voice for communities.

The workshop heard from Tim Warner from the Jericho Foundation, a social enterprise which has been working for 20 years with some of the most excluded individuals.

Tim emphasised the need to work with people for a period of around 2 years to make them work-ready, and was able to give examples of short-term funding having little impact. No more pilots! Here are Tim’s slides:

John Lee, Economic Inclusion Panel co-ordinator, spoke of work in the region to embed a new procurement framework within the leading public sector organisations which make up the Economic Inclusion Panel, committing them to employment and skills outcomes from the money they spend through procurement of goods and services.

John mentioned a positive announcement from the government earlier this year saying they would like to see 30% of public sector procurement going through the third sector. Here are John’s slides:

Both Tim and John spoke of opportunities for employment in environmental industries, with the work of the Jericho Foundation providing a fine example of how the two agendas of environment and local employment can be addressed together – linking these policy areas together could mean increased efficiency from the public sector spend.  Is the West Midlands ready for a Green New Deal?

Helena Duignan, Senior Research Analyst in the Observatory’s Economic Inclusion team, spoke about the impact of the recession on the region’s population, and illustrated how long-term problems have been exacerbated.

Evidence that rates of volunteering are lowest in the areas of high worklessness prompted some discussion of the role of the third sector in providing volunteering opportunities.

Much of the volunteer work that is done in the third sector is central to the business of the organisation, and involves long-term commitment from the volunteers. These organisations are often poorly funded and struggle to meet increased demand for volunteering opportunities for the workless. If we wish to harness the potential of volunteering to help excluded people enter the workforce, major cross-sector investment is needed.

Here are Helena’s slides:

Some other issues raised:

  • There was also discussion of skills needs – there is much talk of the need for upskilling and new highly-skilled employment opportunities, but it is important to provide access to low-skilled and entry level jobs too. Delegates felt they needed more information on what skills are going to be needed in future, and in what sectors. This was discussed at the skills workshop.
  • Is economic growth sustainable? In planning for our future well-being we need to consider the values of society, not just growth in GDP.
  • Competitive tendering can make it difficult for small, local organisations to gain public sector delivery contracts as they find themselves competing with much larger national or international organisations. Commissioners must realise that lowest cost does not necessarily equate to best value for money.

One Response

  1. New Citizenship Survey data published yesterday by CLG show Volunteering levels have remained almost static over the past year in England. Levels of formal volunteering at least once a month are unchanged since 2001. This lack of increase in volunteering despite the rising levels of unemployment confirms what many in the voluntary and community sector have been saying about the lack of funding and capacity to meet increased demand for volunteering opportunities.

    In the West Midlands however there seem to have been increases. This is a quarterly data release so the sample size for the region is relatively small and we would advise caution in using the quarterly regional data.

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