Thursday, 21 January 2010

Compacted Compact

Since the launch of the refreshed Compact in December the voluntary agreement between the sector and government has come in for some serious stick.

This week an open letter from the National Coalition for Independent Action was sent to my boss and to the leaders of the other main national umbrella bodies. It called the Compact a “fig leaf for unequal power relationships”, and declares that the relationship between the state and the sector is “in crisis right now”.

At the same time a number of other key players in the sector have been criticising the value of the Compact; the high profile breach by the very same government department which is supposed to champion the agreement hasn’t helped. Two national umbrella bodies, the Community Sector Coalition and Voice 4 Change England have expressed their dissatisfaction with the revised version.

It is true that in the twelve years since the compact was first envisaged it has not completely changed the world. Statutory agencies still sometimes treat the sector badly. However memories in our sector are short. The Compact has made a huge difference to the relationship between government and the sector if for no other reason than it has created a common agenda for the two parties to develop their relationships.

A document alone can’t change anything. It is what people do with it that counts. Where the Compact has made a difference, it has done so because it has raised the profile of the issues which matter and forced them to be discussed and confronted. Every top tier local authority in the country has its own compact with its own local third sector and these have been negotiated in each area, highlighting the key concerns which need to be addressed. What has made a difference is people who would never have been in a room together before now recognising that they need to work together and discussing how to overcome the barriers to better partnership working. The Compact has framed issues such as longer term contracts, accessible consultations and full cost recovery allowing them to be championed.

The reach of the Compact is something unique to the UK. Through ACEVO’s international work in talking to sector leaders around the world, the idea that government accepts what needs to change for a better partnership with the third sector, even at a policy level, and is willing to make clear commitments to improve that relationship causes jaws to drop. The Compact has been copied in a number of countries around the world including Canada and Australia. Sometimes we don’t know how good we have it.

But the Compact and the structures around it must continue to be developed in order for us to achieve the goal of better relationships between the sector and government. The refreshed document is a great improvement because it makes the principles clearer and leaves more room for local compacts to negotiate the issues specific to that area. It is also more accessible for commissioners to read and quickly understand the considerations which they must have for working with the sector.

The Compact does need greater teeth and ACEVO has long championed the case for a statutory footing for the Commission of the Compact allowing the ombudsman the power to investigate breeches and require statutory bodies to change their practices. We are pushing hard for this change in the run up to the election. It would of course also be able to investigate breaches of the Compact by the sector. We’re not beyond reproach ourselves and it would be a fascinating if a case was brought by a statutory body. We have to live up to our commitments as much as government does.

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