28th November 2013

GMCVO, St. Thomas Conference Centre, Manchester , United Kingdom

The final VSSN Day Seminar of 2013 was hosted by GMCVO (Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation) at the organisation’s St. Thomas Conference Centre. With an audience of over 40, the seminar was very well-attended by academics and voluntary sector staff.

John Diamond from Edgehill University and chair of ARVAC guided participants through the day and highlighted aspects of the common theme running through the four presentations: the dilemmas and opportunities for the voluntary sector in the wake of the recession. Presenters left plenty of time for discussion and the audience took the opportunity to contribute very actively.

Nick Acheson from the University of Ulster opened the session with a very interesting theory paper examining the role of voluntary sector research in post-banking crisis austerity. He argued that there is a worrying trend in the field: the conceptualisation of voluntary sector organisations as victims of forces beyond their control, rather than as entities that actively shape the situation by interacting with other actors. Nick argued that agency in voluntary sector organisations is under-researched in favour of organisational studies and that this potentially has a disempowering effect on the voluntary sector, absolving it of all responsibility.

Beth Plant from Manchester Alliance for Community Care and Adrian Nolan from Centre for Local Economic Strategies brought a local perspective to the issue. Their Framework to strengthen the social sector’s role in Manchester’s Economy encapsulates the belief that the crisis is an opportunity to introduce new ways of conceptualising economic growth and the voluntary sector’s contribution to it. A very lively discussion followed, which focused on the tension between the framework citing economic growth in order to get policymakers’ attention and the need to reframe the debate beyond the notion of economic growth.

After lunch, the discussion turned to two ways of working that the voluntary sector might increasingly adopt to maximise resources. First, Carol Jacklin Jarvis from the Open University presented her paper on boundary spanning in cross-sector partnerships. Drawing on collaboration theory and her own experience of working in the voluntary sector, Carol argued that partnership working needs collaborative disruption as much as agreement and alignment, and that ultimately collaborative advantage arises from differences between the partners, not similarities. From this perspective, boundary spanners have an important role to make partnerships reach their best potential.

Finally, James Rees from the Third Sector Research Centre presented the findings on commissioning from third sector organisations from research on mental health services in an English region. These findings cast doubt on the suitability of commissioning as a suitable approach to involve third sector organisations in public service delivery. James questioned the competence of the public sector to perform the commissioning role, as it is intended (i.e. encompassing the entire commissioning cycle, rather than being a shorthand for procurement), especially in light of staff losses and the fact that commissioning does not help to generate competition, as is often claimed. The discussion that followed raised the prospect of Clinical Commissioning Groups improving health commissioning, highlighted the fact that mainstream public services are now being commissioned at a large scale and raised the question of whether European Law is used as an excuse in order to put out services to tender.

All in all, it was a very interesting and stimulating day and thanks are due to all who participated and helped to organise this event.