What’s it like working with government? - 5th December 2013
FbRN started out as a particular kind of project – a group of faith-based practitioners keen to meet together and learn from each other. At one level FbRN remains just this - a growing network of organisations and individuals wanting to share ideas and develop knowledge and skills. But it has also been clear that the relationship between the public sector and faith organisations is a vital part of 21st century UK society, and part of FbRN’s role has always been to help facilitate, mediate, interpret and catalyse these relationships.
Many of us in the non-government world of voluntary, community and faith organisations have heard and talked a lot about partnerships and co-operation, consultation and engagement. For a good overview of this landscape have a look at Dr Rachael Chapman’s paper on faith communities’ collaboration with local government. If you have more time have a look at our own website resources (filter ‘research and good practice’ items only) or the publications list of the Goldsmiths Faiths and Civil Society Unit will give you plenty of food for thought.
Over the last decade this landscape has changed dramatically. Both ‘sides’ – faith communities and public agencies – have learned a lot and the conversations have deepened as we’ve gained experience. A recent workshop run by Dr Haider Ali for the London Boroughs Faiths Network produced some wonderful qualitative reflections on this work which we’ll disseminate as soon as completes his report but he includes some initial observations:
Our work is complex because we make connections between diverse people, communities and organisations.
We address the tensions that arise as we try and resolve differences.
Our work ranges in scope from encouraging social engagement to empowering communities towards co-producing various services with statutory providers.
There are excellent examples of time being well used to build serious relationships and develop a proper understanding – which can’t be expected to happen overnight – leading to substantial, realistic and often innovative programmes and projects. In other cases relationships have struggled because of unrealistic expectations, false assumptions, suspicions, or simply because key personnel have moved on, and in yet other cases, relationships have not yet even got to the starting line. Many local faith communities are not part of the wider civic conversations with public agencies or even engaged in local or regional voluntary and community networks.
FbRN plays its own role at a national strategic level and as part of this work we are active in the rather elaborately named Voluntary and Community Sector Partnership Board (VCSPB) of the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG).
This Board has been much exercised over the past couple of years around the ideas of localism and community rights. For a simple definition have a look at our introductory page. The basic idea of localism is one that community organisations and leaders should welcome with open arms but, as always, it’s the detail that worries many. And so, because of rational or even irrational worries, the rush to embrace community rights has been more of a cautious stroll. Our friends in DCLG are frustrated that we in the voluntary and community sector are not doing enough to tell the positive stories of local transformation. At the same time we sometimes need to remind them that instead of always talking about individual empowerment to transform neighbourhoods, there already exist amazing organisations – faith communities and others – are already mobilising people in their localities. But all of this begs some important final questions, and we would be interested to hear your reactions, stories and opinions:
Competition: Some faith organisations have chosen to compete in the open market to deliver public services. Does this just make them a faith version of Capita or Serco? Do faith organisations genuinely bring different values and approaches to the table?
Priorities: Would it be better for faith organisations to focus on developing programmes that emerge naturally from their day-to-day work rather than tailor them to public sector agendas and priorities? Or, is it better to build genuine cross-sector alliances that deliver services that everyone can use?
Distance: Is it possible to get too close to government? Would it be better for faith organisations – or any civil society organisations for that matter – to keep their distance and critique from the outside; or is it better to build relationships and work alongside public officials and agencies?
Money: Is money a liberating or distorting factor? By accepting public money are faith organisations enabled to deliver wonderful services, or do they have to conform too closely to other people’s objectives?
Engagement: Should congregations and faith organisations do more to engage in public life – aware of the risks but rising to the challenges and the potential to transform our neighbourhoods and localities? Should we do more to put our assets, resources and knowledge at the disposal of the wider community?
Understanding: Do we still fail to understand each other because of suspicions, false assumptions, and a lack of understanding of the others agendas and approaches? Do we need both a religious literacy uptake amongst public agencies, and something resembling a public policy awareness amongst faith communities? We are involved in initiatives that touch on both of these areas. I am keynote speaker at a workshop on 11th December on “Strengthening Partnership Working Between Local Authorities and the Voluntary and Faith Sector” and in 2014 we will be working with Parliamentary Outreach and Voice4Change to run workshops on understanding the policy environment.
What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.