Over the past 18 months SCVO has worked with its members, as well as partners across local and national governments, to gather information and data on collaboration and partnership working across sectors. Evidence from these reports can be found throughout our submission which largely focuses on the importance of engaging the voluntary sector in the Scottish Government decision-making process. All reports can be found on SCVO’s website for more information:
The reports above all clearly identify four main themes that underpin the relationships between the public and voluntary sectors. These are time, power, trust and value. We therefore must focus on these elements and consider their impact. To support an effective decision-making process within the Scottish Government, SCVO advises the committee to consider how the government should:
To ensure that the voluntary sector, and the communities it works with, are best supported, policy and legislation must be developed collaboratively. Involvement of the voluntary sector, transparency, and parity of esteem are principles that should underpin any effective decision-making process. The evidence review conducted last year as part of the Strengthening Collaboration work found that partnership working between statutory and voluntary sector partners requires attention:
Focusing on the Scottish Government, the Compact between the Scottish Government and the third sector in 2004 is the last time we are aware of specific guidelines and expectations that were written down about Scottish Government engagement with the voluntary sector. Since 2004, however, a considerable body of work has been developed around engagement, in particular moving to a focus on co-production that moves thinking around engagement further up the ‘ladder of participation’. A particularly impactful piece of work on this subject is the National Standards for Community Engagement. It is important that any work in this area draws on that thinking and moves further than the 2004 Compact’s focus on consultation.
SCVO believes that it would be helpful to have some guidance setting out expectations of the government and of those who wish to engage with it, including our sector. Whether such a document would have to be specific to the voluntary sector may be worth further discussion, but there could also be general engagement standards that would apply to the sector, as well as other stakeholders; the key issue here would be for all sectors to be genuinely involved in drafting such guidance, and for mechanisms to exist to hold the Scottish Government (and engaging partners) to account where these standards are not adhered to.
While we would not wish to prejudge those conversations, issues that we know to be talked about in parts of the sector (which we anticipate might come into discussions about reshaping traditional engagement methods) include the points listed below:
We would also anticipate a desire from the sector to think innovatively about different forms of engagement, bringing in their experiences of working creatively with the people and communities they support.
Genuine parity of esteem amongst stakeholders would lead to more effective decision-making processes. Currently the lack of recognition of the voluntary sector’s fundamental role in how our society and the economy function remains. This works against achieving that parity of esteem. It must therefore be addressed to ensure that all actors feel valued as part of the decision-making process and not just an afterthought. To achieve this, not only do we need to recognise the current imbalance of power existing between sectors, but we must also acknowledge that it takes time to build relationships and trust amongst partners.
On these points it was rather striking to hear the evidence from several witnesses in front of the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee in December last year. That session looked at the Local Governance Review and below are some extracts that are worth noting in terms of how councillors describe their own relationships with the Scottish Government. Comments made during that session are interesting to point out as they echo our own evidence throughout this submission:
The last quote raises the issue of implementation. As more and more concerns are raised about the policy implementation gap in Scotland, we need to bear in mind that guidance or agreement of any kind must be translated into actions. It will not be enough for reviewed or new decision-making processes to be outlined on paper; we need to see change in practice too. On one hand this leads to important questions regarding the commitment from the Scottish Government itself to 1) accept that change is needed, and 2) spend time, effort, and resources on improving processes. On the other it also implies greater acknowledgement and respect for the role of the voluntary sector in Scotland.
When it comes to the capabilities and skills of civil servants, data indicate that good relationships rely on individuals remaining in post for longer periods of time, thus allowing them to get to know the organisation they support properly. Some organisations also value relations at strategic level with civil servants who can effectively influence the system. Mutual trust also allows for more open and honest conversations and greater understanding between partners.
It is always positive to hear of good relationships between civil servants and people working in voluntary organisations. As the evidence below indicates, good partnerships rely on good relationships.
Time is a very important factor in enabling such supportive relationships. Civil servants, like anyone else, need time to build trust and improve the quality of their relationships with voluntary organisations. As a society we need to value time to improve decision-making.
Effective decision-making also relies on the recognition that voluntary organisations are not just about delivery and that they must be involved as early as possible in processes to ensure that policies best serve people across Scotland. To do this, time and resources are essential. In the Supporting Collaboration evidence review, ‘time’ and ‘listening’ are noted as key elements to build trusted relationships. But as one stakeholder explains:
Another important point that is raised in the evidence is about power and how much influence civil servants themselves hold within the Scottish Government structure. Some intermediaries argue that there needs to be ‘visible relationships and partnership from senior civil servants who have power’ (Case study of voluntary sector intermediaries, page 5). The Organisational Profiles report also advises that the sector needs:
Moreover people value civil servants who understand their work, their organisation, and the significant contribution the sector makes to the Scottish society and economy.
A lack of understanding of the role and remit of voluntary organisations in Scotland can lead to some in the sector feeling neglected, and not valued as worthy contributors. It is also important to note that it would be helpful for the voluntary sector itself to get a better understanding of how the Scottish Government works and how decisions are indeed taken. Ultimately this also influences the way relationships are developing and how trust is strengthened. As pointed out in the Supporting Collaboration evidence review:
SCVO would be happy to discuss how best to achieve a greater understanding of the voluntary sector amongst civil servants with colleagues in the Scottish Government. Last year SCVO and the TSI Scotland Network published a guide introducing the voluntary sector to MSPs; developing similar resources jointly might be a good starting point to support staff learning and development.
Greater understanding between sectors will also come with, and lead to, more open and honest conversations between partners.
We need to encourage people to invest and spend time on developing partnership-working and learning from it. In 2021, Evaluation Support Scotland (ESS) ran the Working Together Better project. It was a peer learning programme to help third sector organisations and their statutory sector partners evaluate and learn about the impact of their partnerships during the Covid-19 crisis. ESS then published two case studies that outline the experiences and reflections from participants on their collaboration. In one of the projects, when reflecting on why they were able to share knowledge and resolve issues better during the pandemic, one participant explains:
We need more of this because as one interviewee in the evidence review noted:
The voluntary sector must be acknowledged as a respected peer, and not simply tolerated. To achieve this SCVO believes that we need a much greater understanding across sectors, (and therefore including within the Scottish Government) of charities, community groups and social enterprises, why they exist and the difference they make in society. Importantly the focus of this inquiry also brings to the fore questions that might feel uncomfortable to ask, such as: are we more likely to get effective decision-making in times of acute crisis?
The value of the sector as a partner across all areas within the Scottish Government must be recognised, and not simply be seen as (and limited to) the remit of the Third Sector Unit. This is apparent in the Supporting Collaboration evidence review too which notes that meaningful collaboration relies on a better understanding between sectors, equal partnership, open communication, empowerment of community and trusted relationships.
It will come as no surprise that there is also evidence suggesting that the Scottish Government works in silos, with not enough cross-cutting collaboration and relationships (at all levels) that would help towards greater consistency, alignment and accountability. This must change. Indeed it is important to emphasise that work must be done across all portfolios and directorates within the Scottish Government to improve decision-making across the board. Where there is good practice this must be shared more widely too.
The Scottish Government also needs to acknowledge the size and variety of the voluntary sector in Scotland, as well as limited capacity and resources in some voluntary organisations. As an example, when inviting people and/or organisations to take part in working groups, there should be more than one seat available for the sector at those tables. One individual cannot be seen as representing the views, interests and concerns of more than 45,000 organisations across Scotland. This is neither fair on the person invited to take part in discussions, nor on the rest of the sector when businesses, local government and Scottish Government usually have several attendees.
As an example, last year SCVO secured a place for the voluntary sector on the NSET Delivery Board, and Ewan Aitken (Chief Executive Officer of Cyrenians) now sits on the delivery board as a voice for the sector. This was a welcomed move. Since then, SCVO has been working with Ewan to get a sense of how best to support him and draw in broader voices from the sector across the different NSET workstreams and working groups. Nonetheless we remain concerned that the voluntary sector has not been integrated into the work of the NSET from the outset compared to other sectors. We are hopeful that we can secure a breadth of third sector representation across the NSET workstreams, to ensure that voluntary sector engagement is not bolted but is embedded in formal structures and processes.
Finally, the Scottish Government’s attitude to risk may also need to be considered. We often hear how the pandemic impacted on the relationships between public and voluntary sectors. As one stakeholder notices:
In the sector we heard evidence that, for some organisations, Covid-19 led to better relationships with partners, with more trust and better funding arrangements. And yet, we also start hearing testimonials about how those relationships are now going back to the way they were pre-covid.
One may wonder if the perceived lack of urgency now acts as a barrier to partnership working, and effective decision-making. To try and answer this, it is important to learn about what worked well and what did not over the past three years across Scotland. As such we believe that the Scotland Covid-19 inquiry is important and will perhaps also outline ways of working across sectors that are worth developing further going forward.
It should go without saying that effective decision-making should be based on reliable data and sources of information. Voluntary organisations spend a significant amount of time sharing information with the Scottish Government, yet too often it remains unclear to us how that information is used. We need more transparency and accountability.
In 2019, in its report Looking ahead to the Scottish Government’s Draft Budget 2020-21: Valuing the Third Sector, the Equalities and Human Rights Committee highlighted that:
It goes on to note that:
SCVO is of the view that recording and publishing data is important and work towards greater transparency and accountability. This is an issue that is relevant regarding funding for the sector for example and is essential to understand decisions made regarding the Scottish budget process. Transparent, accessible data would highlight the Scottish Government’s significant investment in voluntary organisations. Ministers and civil servants regularly use SCVO figures to underline the scale of the Scottish Government’s direct funding to the voluntary sector – approximately £500m a year. The use of these figures suggests official figures from the Scottish Government are not available. SCVO is of the view that addressing this significant gap in the Scottish Government's understanding of funding flows to the voluntary sector is crucial for the spending in the budget to be appropriately identified, tracked, and understood.
We understand that improvements to fiscal data and information accessibility are already underway involving key Scottish Government experts in the Scottish Exchequer. This work covers public spending, procurement, fiscal transparency, and the budget. Enhancing the accessibility of information relating to the Scottish Government’s voluntary sector funding fits with the Scottish Government’s existing commitment to budget improvement – its Fiscal Transparency Programme – including a Fiscal Portal and its development of the Procurement Management Information Platform. We believe the Third Sector Unit and Scottish Exchequer must work together to deliver joined-up practical solutions.
However, we believe that this focus is not a priority area for the Fiscal Transparency Programme at this time and we have not received a response to the recommendations we made in our submission to inform the 2022 Programme for Government; this highlights another issue with a lack of two-way communication and feedback relating to the information provided by voluntary organisations. On many occasions, it is unclear whether a contribution to policy development in the form of a policy submission has been considered and whether it will be used as input for future policy discussions. There needs to be adequate guidelines and practices in place when handling key evidence provided by voluntary organisations in order to maintain value in this type of engagement.
We must build a new type of relationship between all sectors, where the voluntary sector is valued as both a service provider, an economic actor and a key contributor to thinking on the future of our society. Decisions made about Scotland’s future must be designed with us and our beneficiaries in local and national partnerships.
The call for better partnership working (that would lead to more effective decision making) is an issue that SCVO has raised many times over the years in our interactions with both local and national governments. Most recently we saw progress regarding engagement with the sector on the Programme for Government (PfG). As Sheghley Ogilvie from SCVO explained in a blog post last year:
We therefore welcomed the Scottish Government engagement with SCVO on this last year. A new team in charge of PfG welcomed the opportunity to discuss Scottish Government’s internal processes with us. Following these discussions, SCVO arranged a packed out Policy Network session where our members could meet the Programme for Government Unit Team Lead, ask questions, and begin to consider their proposals. Teams from both SCVO and Scottish Government took part in a webinar (and will be again this year). It is important that more events and activities of this nature are organised to explain how to engage with crucial Scottish Government activities. We could even have more standardised information that is easy to access by all – such as videos, guides etc on how to get involved with the PfG for example.
SCVO has also gathered more examples of positive partnerships over the past couple of years. Although these focused on partnerships between the voluntary sector and local government, strong relationships, time and trust are again key features throughout these testimonials.
While the tools for involving the voluntary sector might differ across directorates/units/ teams, ultimately there should be a principle at the core of the Scottish Government’s decision-making process that stresses the need (and urgency) to genuinely engage with a wide range of stakeholders, with parity across sectors. They should also be a consistent approach regarding decisions across Scottish Government to avoid a two-tier system and sometimes significant consequences for the sector as outlined below:
Reviewing current decision-making processes might give more people opportunities to act as ‘critical friends’ to the Scottish Government. Voluntary organisations have a key role to play in this space as the voice of communities across Scotland. However, it is also a role that some in the sector can find challenging.
Critical role of charities
Recently Anna Fowlie, SCVO Chief Executive, reflected on the importance of that role for charities in Third Force News:
The issue of funding and being critical of the Scottish Government decisions is also a topic worth noting on this subject. While it is not everyone’s experience (and voluntary organisations are still free to campaign), throughout the reports it is interesting to note that several participants expressed concerns about their ability to challenge government while receiving funding from them. For some there is a feeling that this is a fine line to tread:
In that sense some argue that:
The benefits of delivering any public policy result in financial and other costs elsewhere. The obvious cost is a financial one, but there are usually other costs which can take all manner of forms (e.g., choice, competition, provision). It is important that robust options appraisals that explore the costs/benefits of potential public policy solutions and budgetary spend are utilised and consulted on to arrive at a combination of well-balanced, effective, and practical solutions. Policymakers and voluntary organisations must understand any trade-offs before a course of action is taken.
While we would like to hope that such appraisals are adopted by civil servants before taking decisions to end programmes and change spending allocations, very rarely are voluntary organisations given sight of these exercises. For example, the 2022/2023 Scottish Budget reduced the Third Sector Budget Line by £800,000, to £25.8 million, yet the impact of the budget reduction was unclear. If cuts are coming, we need to know where they will fall as soon as possible so we can assess whether it will be possible to deliver the commitments in the Programme for Government and those made elsewhere.
Positives in the Scottish Government’s approach to considering risk as part of effective government decision-making can be found in its latest consultation response on Access to Information Rights. SCVO is still developing its response to two consultations on the topic of extension of Freedom of Information to voluntary organisations. However, the government’s latest consultation does reflect on the concerns that SCVO and other voluntary organisations raised in a consultation in 2019. It is a good example of the Scottish Government reflecting on a range of perspectives and consulting on alternative approaches as part of policy development around a particular policy area.
Voluntary organisations also play a crucial role in monitoring the decision-making of the Scottish Government and the progress that is made towards achieving public policy aims. While bodies such as SCVO do this in part by listening to the experiences of voluntary organisations across Scotland, the Scottish Government can play a more active role in supporting the transparency of information.
As we argued in our answer to question 5, the engagement process leading to the Programme for Government (PfG) is improving and this can be used as one example of how to increase transparency in the decision-making process. But, as we noted then, there are still improvements that could be made. To help increase the transparency of decision making within the Scottish Government, key contacts could be shared with organisations. We understand, for example, that the PfG team receives policy proposals from other Scottish Government policy teams. Because of this you need to have a contact within a Scottish Government policy team to be able to engage with the PfG. There is a big assumption that everyone has this or knows who to contact but many do not.
To enable colleagues across the voluntary sector to understand spending decisions and assess their impact, the Scottish Government should work towards developing a transparent approach to monitoring and reporting, including collecting information across all Scottish Government departments to form an accurate picture of how much funding flows into the voluntary sector and from which budget lines. SCVO is of the view that greater transparency is needed to improve our understanding of the Scottish Government funding process. As evidence suggests:
Funding transparency would support SCVO and other voluntary organisations to:
To enable colleagues across the voluntary sector to understand spending decisions and assess their impact, the Scottish Government should:
Small-scale change could be made relatively quickly by holders of budget lines. The Third Sector Unit should have a role in gathering this information and should publish an accurate picture of how their budget line – the Third Sector Fiscal Resource Budget Line – flows to different projects and organisations.
The Social Renewal Advisory Board’s Third Sector Circle recommendation that Scottish Government funding of the voluntary sector across all Scottish Government departments and local government should be published on the 360 Giving platform - a platform where organisations openly publish grants data- should also be implemented. The Scottish Government published its emergency funding awards on 360 Giving during the pandemic, and the Scottish Government and other public bodies should roll this out across budget-lines. The Scottish Government could link these actions to its existing commitment to Fiscal Openness and Transparency in the Open Government Action Plan.
Furthermore, SCVO is engaging with the Scottish Government’s fiscal transparency programme, part of its Open Government Action Plan. SCVO welcome involvement in this and the Scottish Government’s commitment to improving transparency and participation in the Budget and Budget process. Most recently, we attended a deep dive session on the Scottish Government prototype for a fiscal transparency portal and left the meeting with a sense that civil servants are as committed to improving transparency as those who are calling for more. It is essential that improvement programmes such as this are fully resourced and are not apportioned a shoestring budget that can only go so far, whether that’s investment to build a fiscal transparency portal to cover all Scottish Government spend, or in the systems that are needed to ensure there is a sustainable data supply for this to work.
The voluntary sector needs more streamlined and consistent approaches to ensure a level playing field for all organisations, and this also applies to communications from the Scottish Government. Without good communication, none of the issues outlined in the previous questions will ever be addressed as it should.
Good communication brings recognition and better relations, thus leading to more trusting relationships between partners. It is also important to remember that communication is a two-way process.
Moreover, as noted before, the balance of power between the Scottish Government and the voluntary sector is undermined by various factors, including funding. For some organisations in our sector, Scottish Government’s decisions are synonymous with survival or extinction and the way those decisions are communicated matters enormously.
Evidence from intermediaries explains that providing written documentation for effective and consistent communication, as well as good quality communications with civil servants at all levels and in all relevant teams are factors that would contribute to good funding relationships (Case study of voluntary sector intermediaries, page 4-5).
SCVO therefore calls on the Scottish Government to provide organisations with timely communication (and prompt payment of funds) that would help to prevent funding gaps and uncertainty.
Rachel Le Noan
Policy & Public Affairs Officer