Cherishing the city’s voluntary sector

The city needs to cherish its home-grown voluntary organisations, argues GAVIN CORBETT

“Darling”, she whispered, as she traced a delicate white finger across his mane of golden locks: “Tell me again about… co-production”.

I dare say this is a sentence which won’t appear in many Christmas gift novels. Not unless Adrian Mole has started writing for Mills and Boon.

Co-production is not the stuff of racing pulses. But getting it right may determine whether Edinburgh continues to have a locally-based network of charities and community organisations for the 21st century.

Take, for example, a services contract for people with drug and alcohol addictions, which came to the council’s Finance Committee last week. Over the last 20-30 years a range of locally-based organisations has been providing services to some of our more hard-to-reach residents: often with long-term addictions and with chaotic lives.

Effective services for this group of residents matters for us all – for health reasons, for crime, for peaceful neighbourhoods and a more equal city.

Over the last 2 years, these organisations – NEDAC, CHAI, Castle and Turning Point – have been contributing to a council process of designing a new service: one which works alongside medical professionals and social work staff, to offer harm reduction, support, counselling and whatever else it takes to stabilise lives and, where possible, move beyond addiction.

That’s what co-production means.

The tripwire comes when that is combined with competitive tender. In this case, a tender for a £7.2 million contract over 5 years. Naturally, that size of contract is going to attract wider attention.

And so it has proved. The council, through Edinburgh Drugs and Alcohol Partnership, invited bids to carry out this work from 2016 to 2019 and potentially 2021.

Existing providers bid but, with the exception of Turning Point, which has secured a contract in one part of the city, all were outbid by a Manchester-based provider, Lifeline.

At Finance Committee I argued that a UK-based organisation could not possibly be as well-anchored in the different localities within the city; that service users had been neglected in the commissioning process; and that city GPs, who came to the committee to plead that existing services not be displaced, had been bypassed. I argued that Lifeline’s track record of setting up a service with ex-offenders was not good.

But all these points fell on deaf ears. As a result, two of the three projects, NEDAC and Castle, are likely to fold. CHAI will see its funding dramatically reduced.

While I recognise that longstanding services cannot be forever shielded from change, challenge and innovation, there is something brutal and high-risk about the process here.

So what is to be done now?

Existing providers will be weighing up whether and how they can challenge the contract decision but it’s a steep mountain to climb. If that proves too steep, the council and NHS Lothian must hold the new team to account from day one to ensure that they deliver what they promised. And it is vital that staff in existing projects are encouraged to take up positions with Lifeline if they choose to do that. And not because the regulations say they have to, but because, for this client group, trust is hard-won and easily lost.

And secondly, the council has to work very very hard with the city’s voluntary sector to assuage real fears of tried and trusted local projects losing out again and again to big players with slick bid-writing teams.

They might never appear in a racy pulp novel, but we need to cherish our vibrant voluntary sector a little more.

This blog was first published in the Edinburgh Evening News on 21 December 2015