TSIs: the wrong answer to the wrong question?
Third Force News’ recent article, “Voluntary Action Scotland Slammed in Official Report” (10 January 2017) highlights one particular aspect of Scottish Government’s evaluation of Voluntary Action Scotland (VAS) and the Third Sector Interface (TSI) network – the role and effectiveness of VAS. It’s worth reflecting that VAS has five members of staff and nine board members. It receives in the order of £250,000 of government funding each year. From chief executive Allan Johnstone’s comments in response to the evaluation, it seems that the board, largely comprising TSI chief executives, has prioritised the internal operational structure, finance, staffing and governance of this small team of five people over developing and promoting a coherent vision and purpose for the TSI network.
This strikes me as somewhat analogous to Scottish Government’s relationship with the TSIs. Government asks them to improve efficiency in delivering outputs such as numbers of volunteers and social enterprises, but apparently overlooks the potential role of the TSIs in mobilising the collective impact of third sector organisations and communities to co-produce solutions to pressing social challenges such as inequalities and the impending health and social care crises.
It’s fair to say that currently the TSIs are more of a diverse group than an impactful professional network. The whole is not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts. Significant failings in governance in a small number of organisations have been used to tarnish the reputation of the network and you could be forgiven for thinking that VAS and the TSIs deserve one another. However, perhaps this risks missing the point.
In its communication and engagement plan, intended as the next step in the review of third sector infrastructure, the Third Sector Unit states the Scottish Government’s vision as “To have the most effective and most efficient local third sector infrastructure for Scotland from 2018 onwards”. Effective and efficient at what?
There can be no doubt that there is significant change in the operating context – including new devolved powers, public sector reform, Brexit and community empowerment – but in attempting to strengthen third sector infrastructure, Scottish Government should first answer the question: “what is the problem we are seeking to solve?”
It’s fair to say that currently the TSIs are more of a diverse group than an impactful professional network. The whole is not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts.
In 2008, the model of VAS and the TSI network solved the Scottish Government’s problem of administrative inconvenience by funding 32 organisations rather than 120. There is a risk that the Scottish Government will continue to try to solve the same problem. A tidy, managerial solution could all too easily be proposed on the basis of false assumptions relating to greater consistency efficiency through, for example, shared back-offices or a regional structure.
But today’s problems are different. They are complex and messy and they are not about management; they are about leadership.
Within the network of TSIs there are some leaders with a more strategic perspective on the potential role and function of local infrastructure. They are able to see beyond the current, somewhat contractual, relationship with government to a more empowered and outcome-based way of working. These experienced leaders have a deep understanding of the communities they serve and the political and contested environment they must navigate to bring about change. They see the unique potential of their position within communities to bring about genuine empowerment through enabling engagement and participation. This form of collaborative, local leadership goes further than the current transactional functions embedded in the TSI funding arrangement with government and it is what’s needed now.
If we frame today’s problem for government as “How might we support the third sector to make best use of the collective resources available from funders and within communities to ensure a fairer Scotland?” then the current VAS / TSI model is not the answer. Instead, government needs to be open to a bolder, more enabling approach that trusts and invests in local collaborations to achieve national policy outcomes in ways that are meaningful and have ownership at community level A third sector improvement service can be delivered efficiently and effectively at a national level. The relationships and networks needed to affect social change can only be developed at a local level.
Whether it is feasible or desirable to evolve the current VAS/TSI model into one that enables collaborative local impact is doubtful right now. The leadership and skills necessary to facilitate impactful collaboration are in short supply and quite different from those implicit in the current government contracts with TSIs.
VAS and the TSIs have been given a year’s grace. Government aims to implement changes in 2018. Now is not the time for VAS and the network to turn inwards. It is time to look ahead to the next horizon and focus resolutely on harnessing the collective impact of the third sector to ensure our communities weather the impending storm.
Lynne Wardle is a director of Thrive and an expert in collaborative systems change. She has supported national and international collaborations on topics as diverse as the impact of greenhouse gases and the introduction of market economy in Eastern Europe. In the UK she instigated the programmes that became known as Total Place and Community Based Budgeting.