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Public Audit Committee

Community empowerment: Covid-19 update further information from SCVO

Letter to Convener from Anna Fowlie, Chief Executive of Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, 29 November 2021

Dear Mr Leonard

Thank you for inviting me to join the Public Audit Committee roundtable on community empowerment in the context of the pandemic this morning. I hope you found it useful – I certainly found it interesting, and I’ll be interested to see what conclusions and recommendations the committee comes up with.
You kindly invited follow-up information, so I am writing to provide a little more detail.

1. What worked well during the pandemic

As all of us on the panel this morning highlighted, the focus on people, families and communities, rather than individual organisations and process was liberating and enabled the people and organisations with the right expertise to focus on what they could offer to make the most difference. That focus on the end result enabled better collaborative working, building on strengths and existing relationships.

A good example of that is HomeAid in West Lothian. They got funding through the Hunter Foundation and were able to provide support to people, referred by the council, who didn't meet the criteria for the Scottish Welfare Fund. There are more examples of positive partnership on our website. It’s been important to focus on what’s possible, not why things can’t be done. For example, we’ve been trying to engage people in digital capacity-building for years but overnight that became essential. Similarly, the massive collective effort to eradicate rough sleeping.

We all talked about flexibility, particularly in relation to funding, and I would reiterate that the ability to shift from an original funded activity to something that was more necessary, or worked better as the situation evolved was a significant change that should be retained.

However, short-term crisis response is not sustainable in the longer term. The Together We Help research I referred to was clear that what communities were able to achieve during the crisis should not be taken for granted, or as a replacement for system or state support.


2. Collecting Learning

There are various projects collecting learning happening, including the work of Audit Scotland and the Accounts Commission that the Auditor General referred to and Together We Help referred to above.
As I mentioned, we’re carrying out some longitudinal research in partnership with others including Scottish Government. The first phase looked at where needs were met during the crisis and the next phase includes partnership working, and will be available in February.

Evaluation Support Scotland are running a learning group for voluntary organisations and statutory partners to evaluate their experiences of working in partnership during the pandemic and draw out lessons learned. This will inform our strategic partnership work with COSLA, SG, TSI Network Scotland ‘Strengthening Collaboration.’
We and others who managed Scottish Government crisis funds have captured a huge amount of intelligence as we’ve gone along and it continues to inform our work, and that of Scottish Government and independent funders.


3. Risks around losing good practice/going back to old ways of working

The biggest risk is that we forget how possible everything felt during the pandemic and don't capitalise on that - it was a unique moment, but it proved that many of the barriers we think are there either aren't or needn't be. It was heartening to hear the Auditor General say this to the committee.

There is a significant risk, and anecdotal evidence that it is happening, of returning to disproportionate monitoring or micromanagement of grant-funded work. It seems we have built a system to catch the tiny minority who might do something wrong rather than an enabling system that helps people do the right thing.

It would have been hard for committee members to avoid the recurrent theme of short-term funding and projects as a barrier to holding on to good practice and to innovation. I won’t reiterate the detail of that, but it is crucial and has been recognised elsewhere in the Parliament’s work as well as in the Social Renewal Advisory Board’s report.

It is important that the whole scrutiny and accountability landscape, including parliamentary committees, recognises the importance of outcomes and impact as well as collective responsibility. Recovery from the pandemic is an ideal time to move away from siloed targets and to take a more holistic approach.


4. Strengthening community empowerment across the public sector

I can’t emphasise enough the issue of parity of esteem. There has been a new and welcome recognition over the course of the last 18 months of the vital role the third sector in Scotland’s social and economic fabric, and we need to nurture that so the sector is seen on a par with the private and voluntary sector. I’d be happy to provide more detail on that at another time.

I would like to challenge the public sector assumption that everything is better done in-house, and only when they can’t afford to deliver in-house do they look to out-source to the third sector. I would also reiterate that while councils are obviously central to community empowerment, the rest of the public sector needs to commit to it too, including the NHS and the enterprise and skills agencies. And Scottish Government colleagues need to lead by example, particularly in relation to their approach to grant funding.

To conclude, it’s important that we don’t lose the engagement of the public and communities we have seen in the response to COVID19, whilst not having unrealistic expectations about sustaining the level of effort that a crisis inevitably generates. We have a wealth of reports and recommendations, and we now need to focus on implementation rather than coming up with yet more new ideas.
In the attached appendix, I have set out more detail under the headings in the report published by Audit Scotland and the Accounts Commission.

Yours sincerely  

Anna Fowlie
Chief Executive


Annexe A

Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations Annexe