Debate Opinion The flexibility of the voluntary sector has been breath-taking. Commissioning must match it. A view of contracting during the coronavirus crisis, by Chloë Darlington, Children England Policy and Communications Manager “The immediate impact was to make sense of what was happening to us and the people we serve and to respond in a safe but effective way to the needs of the people we serve. We had to stay in communication, find out from the people we serve how they were affected, learn quickly and react fast.” As an infrastructure body, Children England has the privilege of supporting and championing the immense strengths of voluntary action with and for children and families. We get to see and shout about compassion, co-operation and creativity in children’s charities pretty much every week, and we love doing it. Perhaps the most relevant of those innate qualities during a crisis is flexibility - around the child, around the family and around and within the community. But while we’ve long argued for commissioning practices that nurture flexibility and those other characteristics of voluntary services, including through the Grants for Good coalition, advocating for them during the coronavirus crisis feels more bittersweet than ever. The quote above is from an education support provider whose response to the closure of schools was swift, sensitive and unconditional: they distributed laptops and workbooks from their suspended community hubs to families who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access new school online learning; they turned their office phoneline into a helpline; they shared fun daily learning activities for families on Facebook; they started delivering their sixth form modules on Google Classroom. And whilst this level of responsiveness should show beyond a doubt how never more needed children’s charities are when government support is slow to mobilise, it’s clear from their submission to our joint form on contracting that this organisation is painfully aware there is more to do and families they cannot reach. Our own members have been communicating similar messages to us since the start of lockdown. The ways in which that ‘flexibility’ is manifesting itself are breath-takingly impressive. Always with children’s needs and rights at the heart of changes, children’s charities have, as one member put it, ‘re-imagined our organisation in a week’. Not only have they sensitively translated face to face services into online support - often from challenging home working environments of their own and with less than ideal equipment - they have quickly established new services, new partnerships, new safeguarding processes and difficult decision-making processes to ensure that they can help those who need it most. The toll of achieving all this in a context of years-long austerity, staff shortages and financial precariousness will sadly become measurable over the coming months and years, as staff and organisations are drawing on reserves of resilience that can’t last without support. Children England has been communicating the pressures on children’s charities through several welcome inquiries recently, and platforms like the NCVO-led form on experiences of contracting during coronavirus are helping us to understand where good practice from local and central government are supporting the sector’s valiant response and what sorts of practice are hindering it. The opening quote describes the benefit to the provider of responsive commissioning, which allowed them to listen, learn and adapt to their community’s needs knowing that their contract could continue on the basis of their proposals for changes in delivery. The majority of submissions to that form, and to other forums we’ve held with members, have reported similar responsiveness from commissioners: early reassurance that contracts will continue; flexibility on changes to timescales and delivery methods; confirmation of extra support where costs are increasing or new urgent services need to be developed; and overall a level of trust and open communication that characterises any healthy human partnership, especially in the face of external challenges. In some commissioning relationships this typified practice before the pandemic - and indeed many charities report that current flexibilities and responsiveness are possible because of the quality of communication and trust already established between commissioners and the local voluntary sector. But others are developing this as a crisis response, and instituting new communication channels and joint ways of working in order to develop faster reactions to changing and increasing levels of need. In the children and families sector, both statutory and voluntary agencies are aware that families previously unknown to their services are facing sudden income drops, food shortages and mental health problems, and risk going under the radar unless all local agencies work together to reach out in new ways. New, as well as older, collaboration is proving the difference between family crisis and family survival just now. In other sectors, it’s enabling services to go even further than they used to - in providing settled homes for rough sleepers for example. It’s agonising to think that we might lose it. But lose it we might. These stories are bittersweet to hear because the same providers of vital, urgent and often unique lifelines for families in distress during lockdown are also encountering, perhaps in a neighbouring local authority or Clinical Commissioning Group area, a level of rigidity and recalcitrance that seems to border on the inhumane - or as one respondent put it, it ‘seems like a one way street where they talk and we listen’. Anyone running a service during challenging or unpredictable circumstances will know that this approach fatally undermines the flexibility families and communities need from their local voluntary sector. Charities also report pressure to re-deploy staff to statutory services; refusal of access to their clients; onerously detailed application and reporting requirements during the crisis; and non-attendance at joint meetings by council staff. These are also ‘crisis responses’ - but ones that damage the capacity of service providers to do their jobs. The biggest issue, after the absolute one of contract termination or non-renewal, is simply delay and confusion: ‘The biggest immediate impact has been uncertainty, with weeks of delay leading to difficult decisions about if and how to continue provision and which staff to furlough, which clearly has a major impact on relationships with programme participants.’ The stress caused for managers and practitioners in services where commissioners have been slow to open any dialogue at all, or have remained silent on whether funds will be forthcoming if contract specifications haven’t been met, is palpable in all the data we see. Fears that their service will have to close, that staff will have to be made redundant - and that local families will be abandoned to the hidden harms of lockdown - are almost crippling, and providers report carrying on ‘despite’ rather than ‘because of’ commissioner behaviour. Even where positive approaches have been adopted, several services report signs that this is perceived as temporary by commissioners, and soon it will be back to the ‘business as usual’ of tightly specified contracts, one-way communication channels and payment by results. Already undermining practice pre-coronavirus, this sort of contracting could be fatal to services whose resilience and flexibility will be needed more than ever as communities emerge from lockdown, seek to recover from their trauma and potentially cope with another peak in the crisis later this year. What has been your experience of government contracts during the coronavirus crisis? Has commissioning flexibility matched the flexibility demanded of your own service? Do current practices stem from long-held approaches and long-established relationships, or have you seen brand new practices driven by recent procurement guidance, or a sense of necessity? How long do you think current approaches are likely to last, and what do you think we should build on for the future? We’d love to hear from you. We, along with colleagues at Lloyds Bank Foundation, Clinks, Navca, Locality and NCVO, are determined to show commissioners that the great partnership working going on with voluntary sector providers in so many areas is delivering the support that our communities need - not only in times of crisis but as a permanent source of family and community resilience. Share your organisation’s experiences through the online form or join our online discussion next Tuesday 28th July 3pm - 4.30pm. ‘Our partnership with [the council] has enabled us to accommodate almost everyone who was previously rough sleeping within our own services by bringing on additional supported accommodation, or re-purposing existing accommodation to meet need. This has also enabled us to meet people's needs within a safe, trauma-informed environment and to create additional housing stock within the city that can be used for the longer-term.’ Let’s not abandon the good that’s being done.