Engaging the voluntary sector: how to make devolution a success

Source: PSE Jun/Jul 17

Paul Winyard, senior policy officer at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), explains why it’s fundamental that the third sector has a seat at the devolution table in order to develop a shared sense of ambition.

The devolution process has the potential to radically alter how public money is spent and how councils use existing local assets to create innovative, user-centred public services focused on prevention and cost-effectiveness. At its best, it could directly empower local communities by enabling them to make decisions on the issues that affect them most. 

The voluntary sector will be an essential partner in achieving this potential. Typically led by volunteers and staff from local communities, voluntary organisations are ideally placed to provide first-hand knowledge of local needs and priorities, and how to address them. 

Locked out of devolution process 

Evidence suggests, however, that the voluntary sector has been largely locked out of the process to date. A total of 84% of the 249 organisations who replied to our survey on the topic said they had not contributed in any way to the development or delivery of devolution plans in their area. Among the most common reasons cited were a lack of awareness about devolution, little time and resources and a lack of engagement by local government.

To help address this lack of engagement, our recent report, ‘Local needs, Local voices: building devolution from the ground up’, proposes a series of recommendations for national and local government. For example, we recommend that the Treasury and DCLG develop clear guidance on the criteria that will be used to assess future devolution proposals, including minimum requirements for engagement with the voluntary sector and other key stakeholders. We also highlight the proactive role the voluntary sector should play in helping to shape the development and delivery of devolution deals. 


Increasing involvement in current deals 

But existing deals shouldn’t be seen as a fait accompli. Even in areas where devolution deals have already been struck, there is a lot that can still be done to increase voluntary sector involvement, both in the expansion of existing deals and in the implementation of any agreed plans. For instance, by providing voluntary sector representatives with roles on leadership boards, working groups, local enterprise partnerships and Health and Wellbeing Boards, the people who actually use local services will have more of a voice in setting local priorities. 

Where it is envisaged that voluntary organisations will be involved in the delivery of devolution plans, it will also be important to address some of the perennial challenges associated with procurement practice. Currently a range of issues create problems for voluntary organisations – particularly smaller ones – wishing to participate in service delivery, such as unnecessarily complex procurement processes and short tender timescales, which can disadvantage organisations with limited time and resources.

Additionally, the growing tendency to use a small number of large contracts risks favouring larger providers from both the voluntary and private sectors. Local commissioners should think about how they can support smaller voluntary organisations to participate in public procurement, including the use of grants where possible.

Engaging with local communities 

The voluntary sector must play its part too. Voluntary organisations should engage with local communities on their preferences for the delivery of devolution plans and relay this intelligence to local government; they must endeavour to be willing, solution-based partners for local government. 

However, engagement like this can require resources that many organisations lack. As such, combined authorities might need to consider how they can support the voluntary sector both financially and logistically to carry out this important part of the devolution process. This might include funding local infrastructure bodies so that they have the capacity to co-ordinate engagement or providing seed funding for organisations seeking to develop consortia. Lastly, the importance of cross-sector relationships more generally should be emphasised. 

Recent years have seen increasing pressure placed on the public sector and, consequently, voluntary sector budgets. As a result, relationships have become strained in some areas, at a time when there is a greater need for cross-sector collaboration to deliver services and develop wider, preventative support systems. Strengthening relationships, developing a shared sense of ambition and building cross-sector partnerships around local needs and aspirations will be important for the successful delivery of devolution deals.


The ‘Local needs, Local voices: building devolution from the ground up’ report can be accessed at:



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