Summit 2021: Reflections from Our Director of Public Policy

Posted on
29 Jun 2021
by Ivan Cooper, Director of Public Policy

We had two remarkable plenary sessions at conference this year that explored the big picture for people and communities and the community and voluntary sector.

Day One

The first plenary, Envisioning the Post-COVID-19 World - Building Back Better, explored the most important lessons we have learned about ourselves from the crisis, and how can we shape the future to build on the positives and capitalise on the things we learned during the crisis. Participants included:

  • Peter McBride – Director at The Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (Chair)
  • Dr. Shana Cohen - Director of TASC
  • Stephanie Regan - Clinical Psychotherapist, Media Contributor 
  • Edel McGinley - Director, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland
  • Séamus Boland - CEO of Irish Rural Link

Stephanie grounded us fabulously in the experience of ourselves as individuals and members of families and communities during the COVID crisis. She noted that the crisis had taught us the importance of self-care: and it not being an indulgence, but a responsibility. We have a responsibility to ourselves for self-care, and to others to ensure that we all take care of ourselves.

Stephanie talked about the need for greatly increased investment in mental health care services. She also talked about the importance of supporting people in the new hybrid world of work. She noted how privileged those of us were who had work during the crisis, in particular those of us who worked from home, noting that we are all definitely not in the same boat. Stephanie concluded by noting the challenge for managers of proactively supporting staff in this period of hybrid work that's undoubtedly coming, and the importance of the connectedness that volunteering constitutes for many people.

Shana talked about the need for ongoing dialogue between the sector and the State – and in particular about expanding the role of the community and voluntary sector beyond marginalised groups to include all in society and make inputs to all national policymaking. Community and voluntary organisations need help to capture and communicate their full social impact and value and to escape the constraints of the financial-impact framework. Only if we do this can the sector communicate the full story of the value it contributes.

Edel talked about the challenges facing migrants during the crisis, and how they are more exposed and over-represented in more risky occupations in care work, in home care, in agri-food and in the gig economy. She noted how many people lacked access to social protection during the crisis and once again reminded us of the fact that we have not all been in the same boat together. Edel talked about the COVID crises showing us what's achievable when we put concerns about budgets to one side: The money is there, it is always about determining and prioritising what's important. Edel noted that the state could and did respond properly and effectively - as did the CV sector. Edel noted that we now need to work for transformative change. We need to be careful about the framing of the COVID recovery narrative, and avoiding the return of the competition-for-resources frame. We know the money's there if it's needed and we need to keep our eye on that. We need to combat recession narratives.

Seamus, in particular, focussed on the ever-present worry about a return of the austerity narrative. Seamus noted that we have heard some of the recently emerging language about having to pay for COVID, and while that's not the kind of language we want to hear, we know the pressures that are going to be there in relation to where the tax revenues are going to come from.

Seamus expressed his worry about the threat to public budgets that are posed by the huge debt. He also posed some serious questions: is austerity the only thing we have learned? Are we talking the kind of language we need to maintain the gains and the more positive relations that prevailed during the COVID‑19 crisis? Seamus talked very strongly about the need for civil society to have a strong voice in the post COVID reconstruction - a voice as significant as the huge effort that we put into services during the pandemic. He concluded by noting that we want to be able to make the same big contribution to shaping future policy.

Day Two

Our second plenary session built on this social and economic analysis by focussing more on the community and voluntary sector’s role in shaping the future. The wide‑ranging session dovetailed very well with the themes that emerged in the plenary above as the sector works to develop a post-COVID vision for itself. This session included an inspiring address by The Wheel’s outgoing chair Paul O’Sullivan; an insightful interview with Joe O'Brien TD, Minister of State for Community and Rural Development and Charities; and a lively panel discussion with participants including:

  • Prof. Tom Collins - Educational Policy Analyst and Chairperson of DIT and ITB (Chair)
  • Dr. Tracey A Monson - Director Daughters of Charity Child and Family Services
  • Peter Cassells – Chair of Health Dialogue Forum
  • Ann Irwin - Joint National Coordinator at Community Work Ireland
  • Sarah Monaghan - Campaigns Manager at The Wheel
  • Amy Woods - Communications and Advocacy Manager at Volunteer Ireland

Big take-aways from the plenary were that the sector’s contribution is rooted in values: values that were latent in Ireland for years, nurtured and embodied in the community and voluntary sector, and which underpinned the (as Tom wonderfully put it) “reservoir of the community response that was there to be drawn on when the crisis-moment came”. This was because the capacity was there and had been invested in over the years.

The same values underpinned the increased collaborative working which many contributors talked about both in the sector and between the sector and with statutory partners.

Tracey noted that it was this focus on collaborative partnership within the sector and between the sector and the State that was the hallmark of the successful effort to support people and families and communities during the crisis. Tracey agreed too that these again are the values that we all share and the common glue that binds us together and will provide the setor with the basis to lead on.

Sarah, too, developed the theme of values, noting that the crisis necessitated a fundamental return to the values that are the most important both for individuals and for communities, including health and happiness and community and overcoming inequality and ensuring justice and inclusion and fairness. Sarah noted that these are the values that will enable us to support and advocate professionally and to do that with authority, and we need to ensure that these values are not demoted post crises. And that telling our story effectively and campaigning together on this is a key way forward.

Ann talked about the potential of collaboration and how the sector has worked in many new ways during the crisis with public health and social services. Ann noted that many breakthroughs have been made in relation to services and supports that had been sought for years and there was great potential to build on in all of that. Ann was very clear too that the State needs to view the voluntary sector not just as something that's funded or commissioned to deliver services, but as instead a necessary investment in the future – and that the sector is valued for what it is and not what perhaps the State sometimes wants it to be.

Peter spoke about how strongly the theme of collaboration had characterised the crisis, the high degree of collaborative working that came through which a recently published NESC report is capturing CREATE LINK). Peter talked about how the human purpose came through the collaborative work, and that there was an opportunity through the Health Dialogue Forum to mainstream the new way of working in the years ahead.

Amy talked about values as a basis for action, and the huge desire, as Amy put it, for people who want to volunteer as a way to do something, to act on their values.

The session dovetailed back in to themes that emerged in the first day’s plenary:

  • The need for ongoing dialogue with the State and for civil society to have a real and strong voice in the post COVID reconstruction. (and indeed we called consistently throughout the conference for an inclusive dialogue with government as our key message and the key takeaway.)
  • The need to expand the role of the sector beyond marginalised groups and hard wire it in as front and centre in our general policymaking,
  • The need for the community and voluntary sector to win recognition for the full impact of our work
  • The need in the post COVID world that we don't return to a competition for resources narrative. We heard reference from Tracey and Ann that breakthroughs were possible when community need was prioritised above available resources. We can do it and we need to make sure we continue to do it to ensure that we prioritise the right things and we continue to demonstrate to ourselves that the money is there if we make the right prioritisation decisions.

Big takeaways for me from the two sessions are that it really is all about the values.

Values that will position the sector to succeed in our work and to make sure that there is no slippage back to the old way of doing things. We need to challenge perspectives that put funding considerations first, and it's the values that we draw on that will enable us to achieve that aim.

Values that demand increase in the investment in community development and in investing in communities to counter increased inequality and marginalisation.

Next Steps – Building on Summit 2021

The Wheel has heard these messages and we are very much looking forward to working with our members and with our collaborative partners to advancing all of these issues as we move on from this very strong place.

There are positive signs. We heard an address from An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin TD, about the crucial role played during the crises by the community and voluntary sector. About the need for a partnership model between the sector and government. About the close working relationship that held between government and the sector during the crises. And in the process of co-developing the suite of ambitious strategies for the sector for social enterprise and for volunteering, developed by the Department of Rural and Community Development.

An Taoiseach also noted his government's commitment to supporting and empowering the community and voluntary sector. And these are most welcome observations and commitments and provide a very real opportunity for transforming the relationship that holds between the sector and government in the years ahead, also reflected by the Programme for Government commitment to social dialogue.

So there are opportunities, and it's clear that we need to assert into those opportunities and make these more than just commitments. So that's our challenge.

We very much look forward to engaging with an Taoiseach and members of the government in the short‑term future to discuss social dialogue and making that real, and real social dialogue and critical social dialogue as Edel referenced at the summit, and how it can be strengthened, so that the community and voluntary sector can play our full part in rebuilding for the future and in ensuring a fair recovery for Ireland, socially and economically..

We have heard reference at our conference plenaries to all manner of changes and challenges and opportunities that will be coming and reference to the way in which in many cases the appropriate community values-based responses to challenges and opportunities are present in the community and voluntary sector. The community inspired vision, and the generosity of energy and solidarity is here in the membership of The Wheel and in the wider community and voluntary sector. Our challenge is to harness that generous energy, and community vision and connect it into shaping the future at the highest level and to insist on a reshaping of national policy making itself so through social dialogue and partnership approaches, the way ahead reflects and is shaped by the experience, the learning, the wisdom, the vision, and the real priorities of all that took part in our summit and who continue to work day in and day out now and in the months and years ahead.