by Ivan Cooper, Director of Public Policy at The Wheel
Ireland’s community, voluntary and charity sector is transitioning through a period of great change and the issues outlined in this blog will affect how our organisations are perceived, regulated and funded in the months and years ahead.
The Wheel is engaging intensely with our members through our CEO’s Network, Regional Forums, HSE Network, Tusla Network, Community Services Programme Network, Finance Manager’s Network and our GDPR Network. While all members agree that top of the list of priorities facing the sector is to restore high levels of public trust and confidence (and to demonstrate best governance practice in doing that) members want action on a range of issues that are affecting their ability to focus on their mission. Our members are telling us unambiguously that they want government action on:
- reducing compliance demands (and ensuring the cost of compliance is funded);
- restoring funding to pre-crisis levels and ensuring multi-annual funding that provides the full cost of services;
- reducing insurance premiums; and
- ensuring funders respect the autonomy and professionalism of community and voluntary organisations.
We are engaging with the Department of Health and HSE, the Department of Children and Tusla, the Department of Rural and Community Development (and Pobal) and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and others to ensure these, and many other issues identified by members, are prioritised in departmental and agency plans. If you would like to join any of the networks identified above please email me at email@example.com
We have also engaged with all of the major political parties this year, meeting policy managers in Fianna Fail, the Labour Party, Sinn Fein and the Green Party. We have also attended all the Ard Fheiseanna making the case on these issues and for strong and coherent policy to support a thriving community and voluntary sector.
In terms of our engagement with Fine Gael in government, we participated in the National Economic Dialogue in June, where we called on Government to streamline compliance demands and provide for the costs of compliance. We pointed out that the state has made a huge investment in compliance systems (such as the Charities Regulator and various commissioning processes) in recent years, but has made no equivalent investment in the capacity of the community and voluntary sector to respond to these compliance demands. We also called for Government to take action to reduce insurance premiums. I can report that both calls were heard loud and clear and that they were welcomed by many organisations present.
Members attended our Inaugural Meet the Party Leader event on 20 June with Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin at which members made the same points and engaged in dialogue on Labour’s policy for the sector. We will keep you informed as the series continues with the other party leaders in the Autumn. The series is an important element of The Wheel’s work to support our members to engage with the political system in the run-up to the expected 2019 General Election.
Another element of this political-engagement work is our Stronger Charities, Stronger Communities Lobbying Campaign, phase one of which took place on 6 and 7 July. Participating members contacted their TDs to raise awareness of their issues, including compliance and funding, and to ask that party policies address these issues. If you would like to learn more about the campaign please email firstname.lastname@example.org. We will be encouraging all our members to get involved in proactively engaging with their TDs and indeed with all candidates when we get closer to election time. It is only if there is enough awareness amongst TDs that we will see really committed policies and party-manifestos to support the sector and its work.
Reducing insurance premiums is a pressing issue for many members and to pursue this objective we joined the Alliance for Insurance Reform in 2018. The Alliance is a coalition of private sector and voluntary sector representative bodies working together to encourage Government to take action to reduce insurance premiums. As part of our work with the Alliance we have met with Minister Michael D’Arcy, addressed the Oireachtas Committee on Business, Enterprise and Innovation, and organised lobbies in the Minister’s constituency. Increased recent media coverage of the issue of unsustainable insurance premiums is a testament to the effectiveness of this work. Let’s hope the effort pays dividends in reducing premiums in the years ahead. For some members, these costs have already forced them to close services.
Shaping policy in the Department of Rural and Community Development
Clearly, many of the issues identified above could be addressed in a systematic way by the state and The Wheel is closely involved in many initiatives currently underway in the Department for Rural and Community Development (DRCD), the lead department for the community and voluntary sector in Ireland.
The still relatively new department has recently published its Statement of Strategy and is currently developing three inter-linked strategies: a Strategy for the Community and Voluntary Sector / Plan for Local and Community Development, a Strategy for Volunteering and a Strategy for Social Enterprise. Taken together, these plans and strategies have the potential to address the issues identified by our members, and I can report that The Wheel is closely involved in the various departmental working groups established to develop them. Indeed, the strategy to support the community and voluntary sector currently in development has resulted from the commitment that we worked hard to ensure was included in the current Programme for Government (see page 131).
We anticipate that the suite of strategies will be published late in the autumn and we will be working hard to ensure that our member’s priorities are addressed in them. We are encouraged by the positive spirit with which the department has gone about developing these strategies and are optimistic that many of the issues will be positively addressed.
The DRCD is also currently undertaking a Review of the Community Services Programme (CSP) and we brought our members together in July to afford them an opportunity to identify the issues that they would like considered in the review. The CSP is a vital programme that supports the work of many community services (with a budget of over €40m) by providing employment grants. Any changes to it may significantly impact the work of organisations currently supported. We will be submitting our member’s views on the future of the CSP shortly. If you would like to contribute your thinking, please email email@example.com
Shaping the practice of statutory funders
While engaging with lead departments is important when seeking to advance our members issues, the day-to-day relationship between our members and the state usually takes place through agencies such as the HSE, Tusla, Pobal and the Housing Agency. It is these agencies that “operationalise” much departmental policy and it is often the practices of such “executive agencies” that raise the most issues for members.
The Department of Health has initiated a comprehensive Review of Role of Voluntary Providers in Health and Personal Social Services, and this has presented an important opportunity for our HSE funded members to make their views known on current arrangements.
Following in-depth engagement with our HSE-funded members, The Wheel prepared a submission to the review group, which you may find of interest, even if you are not funded by the HSE. It identifies issues that many of our statutory-funded members raise, irrespective of who funds them. Many members are concerned that the HSE’s commissioning process (currently in train) may result in the sector being rationalised under a “bigger is better and more cost efficient” rubric when bigger, many would argue, may be less responsive and accountable to people and communities being served and supported.
The review presents an unparalleled opportunity for health and social-service providing members to see their issues named and addressed in an official report to the Minister for Health. Additionally, we are collaborating with the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies, the Disability Federation of Ireland and others in advancing our HSE funded members interests. The report of the review body is expected in the autumn, and we are hopeful that it will make positive recommendations relating to the general arrangements that apply to HSE funded organisations. Whether such recommendations are translated into changed practice is another story, however. Our HSE network met again yesterday to discuss recent developments, and the group will be focussing on Slaintecare, the cross-party strategy for reforming health and social services, in the period ahead. If you would like to join The Wheel’s HSE Network please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Wheel is also continuing to work with Tusla as a member of its Commissioning Advisory Group. We are monitoring the impact on our Tusla-funded members of the introduction of new Tusla Service Agreements and the rollout of Tusla’s commissioning process.
Additionally, responsibility for the production of statutory guidelines for commissioning has passed to DRCD, so we will be working closely with the Department to ensure that the guidelines, when produced, are consistent with the principles of our influential report Commissioning For Communities, published in 2016. Our Tusla Network will be meeting in the autumn and if you would like to join, once again, please email email@example.com.
Shaping Budget 2019
As can be seen, we are working hard to ensure that the funding, regulatory, compliance and support needs of our members are reflected in national policy and budgetary processes generally. As noted above, we participated in the Government’s National Economic Dialogue on June 27th and 28th at which we called to government to reduce and streamline the compliance demands on charities. We also called on Government to restore funding for community and voluntary organisations that have endured cuts since 2008 and are now facing many challenges in retaining staff and coping with increased demand for services.
In relation to funding: European funding is an increasingly important source of support for many members and we are working hard to shape the priorities of the next round of European Funding programmes being agreed by Government just now. If you would like to know more about our policy asks in relation to the future of European funding please email firstname.lastname@example.org. We are currently engaged in meeting MEPs to brief them on what’s needed if our community and voluntary sector is to benefit to the full from participation in European funding programmes.
Underpinning public trust and confidence: getting the regulatory balance right and telling our stories effectively
Finally, and remembering why we are doing all of this work with our members, all of us as community and voluntary organisations exist to advance a cause and/or to provide a support or a service in our communities. We would all agree that maintaining high levels of public trust and confidence in our work is important – so it is important for us to remember that unfortunately public trust and confidence in the sector is still low, and is very slow in recovering. In a recent public poll, less than half of respondents said they had trust and confidence in charities. This is not a sustainable state of affairs.
There is, however, good progress being made in some important areas. The Wheel worked hard as a member of the Charity Regulator’s Consultative Panel on Governance to produce a report that the Regulator is now implementing. As part of this, the Regulator is currently developing a new Governance Code for Charities (to replace the current voluntary code), and The Wheel is represented on the Group that is developing it. The new code will be a mandatory code for all charities that will have to declare themselves compliant or explain their non-compliance where appropriate. We will keep you informed of developments as they occur.
An ongoing challenge facing the sector, and one we are working hard on keeping a focus on, is getting the regulatory balance right to restore public confidence without stifling innovation in the sector: we must make sure that our community and voluntary sector does not become rigidly compliance-driven but remains instead flexible and responsive to need.
The Wheel has also joined in a collaborative campaign on defending civil society voice with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Transparency International, Front Line Defenders and others. The campaign is aimed at ensuring that the voice of civil society remains strong in the face of all the new regulatory and compliance requirements. There are concerns that the unintended consequences of the interactions between charity regulations, lobbying regulations, service-agreements and the “third party” provisions of the Electoral Acts (which ban many “political” donations to charities which are otherwise entirely legitimate – as confirmed by the Charities Regulator in his recent guidance on the promotion of political purposes by charities could suppress advocacy by charities. It is also worth noting that the Lobbying Regulator (the Standards in Public Office Commission) is currently consulting on a Code of Conduct for Lobbying. The Wheel will be making a submission to the consultation. If you would like to learn more about the defending civil society voice campaign or make a contribution to our submission on the lobbying code, please email me at email@example.com
Part of building public trust and confidence involves us all in better telling the story of the difference that we individually make, and that the sector makes, in the lives of the people and communities we serve. Traditionally, the charity sector has been poor at telling the story of the impact of our work – so please consider taking part this year in our Charity Impact Awards to be launched in September. It’s your chance to showcase the difference you make, and to play your part in telling the story of the sector more effectively; a story that we believe when fully appreciated will go a long way to returning the sector to the high levels of trust and confidence we should expect.
– Ivan Cooper is Director of Public Policy at The Wheel
Want to know more?
These two videos provide a good overview of the key challenges for the community, voluntary and charity sector.