Accountability and Autonomy: Getting the Balance Right

Posted on
28 May 2019
by Lily Power, The Wheel's Policy Officer

At The Wheel we have spent many years advocating increased regulation for the charity, community and voluntary, and social enterprise sector. We were instrumental in pushing for the establishment of a Charities Regulator in Ireland and believe in the value of regulation and best practice guidelines for the reputational and operational efficiency of the sector.

However, in recent years, many of our members have expressed concern about a rapid increase in general, and specifically in funding-related, compliance and reporting requirements. Organisations across the sector are struggling to keep up with new contracts and commissioning processes being developed by government departments.

We sought to address this pressing issue during a morning session at The Wheel’s summit, which took place on 23 May. The session was titled ‘Accountability and Autonomy: Getting the Balance Right’ and was chaired by Jacquie Horan of Cope Galway. The panelists were Mo Flynn (Rehab Group), Bernard O'Regan (Western Care Association) and Tim O'Donoghue (Kerry Diocesan Youth Services). Mo Flynn spoke about Rehab’s recent experience going public with its fears that the organisation won’t be able to continue providing services without an increase in funding to meet compliance requirements. Bernard O’Regan spoke broadly about his concerns for the sector in light of new processes, while Tim O’Donoghue detailed the specific challenges his organisation has faced in recent years as it has grown in size and broadened its remit. All were concerned about the increasingly multifaceted nature of compliance requirements and the absence of whole-of-government solutions.

During the discussion, it became clear that the issue of increasing compliance with regulation is affecting organsiations of various sizes across a range of areas. O’Regan spoke about the sense of a growing culture of “documentation compliance and box-ticking” rather than genuine accountability, as organisations struggle to fulfil compulsory requirements. As a result, current regulatory requirements can be understood to be prohibitive rather than constructive, discouraging charities and voluntary organisations from thinking deeply about how to become more accountable to the people they serve. Comments from the floor echoed this sentiment, with several attendees raising the issue of duplicate reporting when they receive funding from more than one department, resulting in multiple complex Service Level Agreements (SLAs).

There was palpable support for Mo Flynn as she spoke about Rehab’s recent interaction with government, with a comment from the floor expressing the sense of hope that it had given many smaller organisations. Flynn discussed her sense that there has been a change in the relationship between the community and voluntary sector and the state, which underpins many people’s frustrations, with a “command and control” mentality taking over. This further reflects a move away from the idea of partnerships between the sector and the state that characterised the era before the financial crash. SLAs have become increasingly rigid, often stipulating exactly which services voluntary organisations are funded to provide as well as including specific direction on how this must be achieved. On this topic, Tim O’Donoghue spoke about the difficulties his organisation currently faces due to the the multifaceted nature of its work, which developed organically over time in response to identified local needs and relevant research. This provided another example of our members’ concerns about how the current regulatory climate is stifling the sector.

The conversation then moved to the concept of value, with panellists agreeing that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the community and voluntary sector to demonstrate the value it creates in a way that is satisfactory to funders. Jacquie Horan mentioned The Wheel’s collaboration with Medtronic and Whitebarn Consulting, which is currently underway. The aim of this project is to investigate the possibility of developing a measurement tool for social value that can be communicated effectively to funders and other stakeholders.

This led to a comment on the influence of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and its metrics on other departments that fund community and voluntary organisations, pushing them towards a focus on cost-benefit to the neglect of other forms of value. In this way, Mo Flynn argued, the problems are really taking place at a political level, and cannot be solved only through negotiations with implementation bodies such as the HSE or Tusla. It is necessary to go above and address politicians and policymakers in order to make change happen. In the case of Rehab, she noted, releasing a statement publically had allowed them to gain the attention of decision-makers and to demand change.

The session ended with a call to action from both audience members and panellists. There was a palpable sense that the community and voluntary sector has ‘had enough’ and that organisations are struggling to fulfil their remits and to provide vital services under the strain of regulatory compliance. A comment from the floor that we need to “unite and mobilise” on this issue was met with applause. There was also general consensus that this is a sector-wide concern facing everyone from small voluntary-led organisations to large charities who are considered major service providers. To close the conversation, Jacquie Horan emphasised the need for the sector to produce a unified, constructive strategy comprising a set of “positive solutions and key asks”. This is an issue that The Wheel will continue to seek our members’ feedback on in order to move forward and seek improvements for the wider sector.