How Do Some Voluntary Organisations Still Thrive Despite Chaotic Government Policies?

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It’s just over a year since the Coalition Government took office, and already its impact on civil society is immense. The government’s programme of spending cuts is biting hard. Its key public policies appear poorly conceived and are causing a great deal of confusion. Many voluntary sector organisations in particular are reeling from funding losses, whilst also feeling suspicious of the intentions behind new government policy. As a result many are uncertain about strategies for organisational sustainability, and concerned about how best to maintain support for service users. 

It is undeniably tough, and there are no easy solutions, though occasionally unexpected opportunities crop up when new government policy starts to go pear shaped!  It is worth understanding the dynamics of policy development in order to guard against the risks and take advantage of any relevant opportunities that occur. To do so you need to be very clear about the tactics you are prepared to adopt, and how these relate to your organisational strategy and core values.

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These ideas really hit home to me when I thought about my decade of working in the HIV sector, from the early days of the epidemic. The sector achieved one of the most significant social transformations of the late 20th century, despite a similar economic depression, and the tough public sector reforms being introduced at the time.

Some of the tactics are widely know: that highly articulate people with HIV told compelling personal stories; communities lobbied on human rights; many people became expert in medical matters; and the sector pointed out how current services failed people affected by the virus. 

One smaller contribution that is less well know is that a number of HIV leaders were concerned that the public sector reforms would dismantle the progress that had been made in developing HIV services. They took a smart gamble and decide to engage with the changes – offering to pilot the NHS & Community Care Act reforms across London HIV services. As an HIV sector colleague put it at the time, “You have to go surf the latest policy waves or they will crush you!”

This put HIV squarely on the commissioning map, and gave HIV leaders a new technical advantage – they developed commissioning expertise that was valuable to their public sector organisations, so they had to be listened to. Similarly, leaders of London HIV provider services formed a consortium, developed supplier expertise, and ultimately managed complex service mergers when the funding landscape changed. Several HIV leaders went on to hold influential positions in civil society, and “mainstreamed” HIV as an issue.

Many of the tactics from that painful era can be adapted for these current turbulent financial times. 

 

 

To tease out the implications, I’d like to go back to the Gartner Hype Cycle, which I introduced in my previous blog about internal organisational change. This time I’d like to use it as a framework to think about the way public social policy changes are driven by central government:

  • Our governments have an impossible task. To win elections they campaign frantically, hyping themselves senseless with catchy new social policy Triggers like The Big Society and Localism, as well as a few rehashed versions of old policies like reform of the NHS.
  • Once elected, they come to power on a Peak of Inflated Expectations, and have to bust a gut to implement their policies within the 4 year election cycle if they want to be returned to office. Which means they ignore everything that is known about how to implement change successfully. Instead they force top-down changes, way too quickly, without consultation, causing deep resentment in the workforce. Just like the current outrage at NHS reforms.
  • This is when government policy gets severely criticised, civil society organisations try to obstruct it, and it sinks into the Trough of Disillusionment. It is a period of utter confusion and discontinuity when essential batons are dropped.
  • Then governments change gear, ratchet up the pressure, and try to force through their agenda. At this point governments need pioneer projects that show how the policy can work in practice. Through these pilot projects the contradictions in the policy are ironed out, and as it becomes more viable it is taken up the Slope of Enlightenment.
  • Gradually a version of the policy becomes accepted as the norm and is integrated into everyday practice on the Plateau of Productivity

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If your organisation is financially secure, your service users are respected in the ‘mainstream’, and you aren’t concerned about how new policy will be interpreted in your sector, then there is little point in getting swept up in the turbulence of the Hype Cycle – it is better to hold fast to your long term organisational strategy. But if you aren’t so lucky, here’s how you can work with the different stages in the cycle:

  • Policy Trigger: If you are aware of a deficit in social policy relating to your organizational mission, be proactive about setting the agenda, and put forward a compelling case for a new policy.
  •  Peak of Inflated Expectations: At the point at which a policy is being hyped and getting a lot of attention, it’s possible to ‘piggy-back’ the hype and to raise the profile of your organizational mission.  If your beneficiaries are likely to be disadvantaged by a new policy, this is a good time to challenge it.
  •  Trough of Despair: When a policy is heading for the doldrums, this is an opportunity to gain greater influence by developing expertise in the issue. Be able to articulate what does and what doesn’t work about the policy, relate this to your organizational mission, and show how your organization can provide solutions to the shortcomings.
  •  Slope of Enlightenment: This change of gear is the most volatile tipping point – it probably presents the most opportunities and the greatest threats. This is the stage where policies have to be seen to be viable, so it may offer the best opportunity to secure special funding if you can showcase innovative services that pilot the policy. You’ll need to demonstrate that how the policies can be operational.
  •  Plateau of Productivity: Here is where the regular service contracts are likely to sit, for policies that are taking hold and becoming normalized. This best suits organizations that are geared up for tendering, who can frame their service activity in the policy jargon of the moment.

 When engaging with these stages it’s worth remembering that it’s difficult to alter the political ideology underpinning a policy, but possible to influence the way in which it is implemented.  

if you are concerned about being compromised by its ideological motives, it may be some consolation to know that this difficult process of taking a new policy all the way through the Hype Cycle – and getting it assimilated into everyday working practice – probably normalises it, and  dilutes some of its original radical ambitions. Still, you need to keep reminding yourself of your organisation’s core values and principles, and the restrictions on charities carrying out political activities. 

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The main reason why governments make such a hash of implementing their policies – and hence how opportunities arise for civil society organizations – is because politicians don’t wield as much direct power as they would like to. They are at one removed from the institutions that they have to change, so they only have blunt instruments to engineer the results that they are after.

1.) Firstly, governments offer financial incentives for specified performance targets. But this takes time to have an impact, and it involves a trade-off: cash-hungry local public services will take the funds but ‘interpret’ the government’s policy agenda more loosely in order to serve local priorities. These local bodies will also commission the voluntary sector to deliver some of these targets – which gives voluntary agencies some room to do a similar trade off: juggling the government policy targets with their own organizational ambitions, service standards, and social ethos. So it really pays for voluntary organizations to be savvy about tendering and contracting.

2.) As we are witnessing at the moment, governments make changes by cutting budgets to rival programmesThis burns up resources, disrupts services, and is carried out too quickly to catch the learning from services that are forced to close. Which makes it essential for civil society organisations to embed their own learning, and to be ready to reframe the successful work that they do in the new rhetoric of the moment. There may be opportunities for voluntary organisations to exploit their independence and to take on controversial programmes that public services have to distance themselves from (as the HIV sector demonstrated with its positive safer sex campaigns).

3.) Governments also resort to restructuring the public sector – often as a tactic to avoid head-on conflict with powerful groups such as doctors. Which means that the restructuring has little strategic logic and limited effectiveness (and is bound to be rehashed again in future). It also means that there is a churn in post-holders which makes it essential for voluntary sector leaders to refresh their networks and identify new allies in the system. One of the fortunate paradoxes is that voluntary organisations may be at the bottom of the economic food chain in civil society, but smart voluntary sector leaders are able to cut through the hierarchies of the public sector and get access to senior movers-and-shakers – sometimes more successfully than people within those organisations.*

4.) Newly elected governments rush to ‘carpet-bomb’ parliament with new policies – presumably to overwhelm the opposition – which can be very confusing. Clearly it is essential to be on the ball and on top of key policies that will have most impact on your area of work.

5.) Given that successive governments have torn up the rule book on effective change leadership, it’s no surprise that they find themselves careering towards their next election with inadequate results to show for their efforts. So they frantically turf new money at quick high-profile schemes to convince the electorate that their policies are working. It can really help to be prepared for these spending sprees, by having a viable funding proposal lined up – with some high profile quick-wins built into the programme.

6.) And of course when a new election comes around, politicians feel compelled to bury policies that aren’t working, and to then trigger a new set of policies for the campaign trail – so the hype cycle continues! It’s essential to line up with the wider issues and that have a sustainable future (eg. the ageing population, climate change and energy security, personal debt and poverty.) 

7.) But it is significant that some of the programmes that have taken hold most effectively are those projects that are adapted from one government to the next. So Thatcher’s internal markets became Blair’s ‘Third Way’, and Labour reaped the rewards of Major’s National Lottery. So it’s worth being mindful of the underlying trends that are likely to be sustained beyond the lifetime of the present parliament.

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Of course the Hype Cycle is just a schematic representation – real life is a lot more messy – but the key message it conveys is that there will always be a frustrating hiatus between the development of high level policy, and its practical implementation. As long as the key government players want a floundering policy to succeed, there could be opportunities out there in the midst of the confusion. 

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Here are some pointers specifically for voluntary organisations:

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  • Poorly developed policies can leave organizations feeling thwarted, so it is essential as a leader to remind yourself of the expertise you already have in your organization. eg. Big Society rhetoric sounds baffling, when it is really just a new spin on old community development – which the voluntary sector has always done best.
  • Don’t assume that you have to press the government for clarity on a hazy policy – you risk getting a restrictive answer. It may be more powerful to exploit the ambiguity, or to shape the agenda by defining the policy on your terms. (Again, the Big Society is a case in point.)
  • Remember that politicians in the same party aren’t homogenous – find allies who understand your offer and beware those who may want to sabotage your work to undermine their party colleagues.
  • Put a compelling case for your mission. Know your community intimately, build your dialogue with your service users, and make sure you know your market inside out. Build a narrative around this and seek out a network of story tellers who can bring it to life.
  •  Find different points of entry in public services  – whether through service users, frontline staff, executive leaders, or elected councillors. Be clear about how your work can help them to meet their objectives. Build a strong evidence base for the effectiveness of your work to support this.
  • Know your organisation’s strategy and values, hold the balance between your core purpose and new funding opportunities – and protect against mission drift.
  •  Avoid insularity at all costs. Cuts, restructuring, redundancy, lack of capacity for long term planning all contribute to isolationism. So guarantee to schedule an horizon scanning discussion for your SMT at least every month – and do it!
  •  Ensure that your business model, systems and personnel structure provide as much flexibility as possible to be able to take advantage of the constantly shifting landscape.
  • Keep the primary focus on meeting the needs of your service users, not the needs of your organization. As the HIV sector has demonstrated, organisations are time-limited, funding cycles end, and service users’ needs change, so be proactive and recognise when it’s time to change, partner up, merge or move on with dignity. But always ensure that the learning and insights are captured.

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My grateful thanks to: Graham Fisher, Chief Executive of Toynbee Hall, Kate Hinds, and to Jim Pett for contributing their ideas.

* Thanks to Dr Jill Mordaunt for pointing this out. 

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One thought on “How Do Some Voluntary Organisations Still Thrive Despite Chaotic Government Policies?

  1. Thanks for sending me this. I think it is brilliant: clear and practical and probably a boon to any organisation floundering at present thinking they are the only one’s out of step. More power to your fingertips!

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