Ivan's Policy Update: February 2022

Posted on
15 Feb 2022
by Ivan Cooper, Director of Public Policy

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It goes without saying that the community and voluntary sector faces an ongoing challenge in responding to the reputational crisis that recurs whenever a charity gets into difficulties (serious or otherwise) or finds itself in the news for the wrong reasons.

Without making excuses, such incidents will occasionally occur despite everyone’s best efforts. There is no such thing as perfection. And whenever they occur, the sector as a whole gets judged. The very-well-received We Act campaign will help in building public and policymaker consciousness of the extent of the work of the sector, but that will be a long-run outcome.

In the meantime, we as a sector need to work harder at achieving the highest governance standards, and we all need to recognise that this is time- and effort-consuming. Good governance needs better resourcing and innovative new supports from the sector and the state for the unpaid volunteer trustees that discharge this function. The sector needs to have a conversation to really think outside the box and ask ourselves how we can do governance better, and to identify new ways of doing it, resourcing it, and supporting it.

Supports for Trustees and Reviewing the Charities Act

We also need to ensure that trustees of charities that find themselves in difficult positions are supported in their important work of stabilising such organisations, and not made to feel isolated in their response or blamed for their circumstances. The forthcoming amending bill to the Charities Act needs to include provision for such supports. We also need to understand the implications of the still-relatively-new regulatory regime for charities. How is it working? Are there different approaches that could be taken? What might they be? How can regulation be improved? Because everything can be improved. We need a full review of the Charities Act to involve all stakeholders with perspectives to offer.

Change of Approach by Statutory Funders?

Statutory funders like the HSE and Tusla responded really well to the COVID-19 crisis. They continued funding despite the fact that priorities changed during the crisis with regard to how these funds would be spent. This flexible and positive response by funders ensured that crucial services were sustained through the crisis and that our social infrastructure wasn’t devastated.

We are hearing worrying reports of a different approach on the part of statutory auditors and contract-management. It seems that such funds might now be vulnerable because they were spent on activities that departed from what was agreed pre-COVID-19, even though that was done in partnership with the departments and agencies concerned.

More generally, we often hear reports from funded organisations that they have good positive relationships with their main contacts in state agencies and funders, only to find a much more hard-edged, insensitive response (that lacks understanding) from contract-management and audit. So this is really an appeal to state agencies to be sensitive to the decisions that were made during the crisis which ensured that we still have services to audit! We will be seeking to work with key partners in briefing the relevant units in key departments, agencies, and the C&AG on matters such as these in the months ahead. If you have a related story here, let me know at ivan@wheel.ie.

We are also concerned at reports that a certain very influential department may be seeking the return of putative “savings” made by funded organisations that it is felt had no use, or should have had no use, for expenditure headers like rent during the crisis, or who should now be looking to reduce such costs in the post-COVID-19, hybrid workplace. We will be making the case that if there are any savings (and hybrid working involves additional costs anyway), such savings should be applied to enhancing the services concerned.

Developing Partnership-Working: Learning from The Health Dialogue Forum

An interesting discussion took place recently at the Health Dialogue Forum that is aiming to develop a more partnership-orientated approach in the relationship between the voluntary sector, the Department of Health, the HSE, and HIQA. This is long overdue and we are enthusiastic participants.

The discussion of interest related to the need for all concerned to escape the “principal-agent” paradigm, where funders (like Government departments and the state agencies they fund) see themselves in turn as a “Principal” in a vexing relationship with unruly, self-interested “agents” in the form of the voluntary organisations they fund. The Departments and state agencies are themselves of course involved in a Principal-Agent relationship, further complicating things!

This web of agents gives rise to a culture of mistrust and the consequent intrusive, contract-dominated command and control felt by all. The discussion centred on whether and how we can escape this paradigm and develop a partnership, co-design approach that encourages delegated decision-making at points nearest to the delivery of the support concerned. One that shares risk, and releases the innovation, initiative, creativity, flexibility and responsiveness at the frontline in our community and voluntary organisations.

Serious effort is now going into this work to rethink the relationship and escape the principal-agent paradigm. I have to report that I am excited about the possibilities here. Watch this space for further reports.

We have a session at our Summit 2022 conference (mark it in your diaries for 1 June; tickets will be available soon) at which we aim to share progress made in the Health Dialogue Forum and encourage other fields in the community and voluntary sector to see whether the new approach being developed could be applied in their work area.

See also: 7 Policy Priorities for 2022