Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Founders Thoughts: Double edged swords

When it comes to anything to do with the community, be it volunteering, charities, public services or social enterprises there is always a difficult equation to get right. As the services involved effect us all and are the backbone to our sophisticated society we simply cannot do without them, but funding them is (to some minds at least), akin to shredding money and throwing down the waste disposal unit.

There is no limit to what could be spent to help remedy such issues as poverty, crime, health, education and unemployment, hence any accountant is averse to there not being a cap on spending for them all. What price though should be put on these services when it is in all our interests to make them as effective as possible? I would argue that if we want the best of services we have to invest in them more if we are to ever hope to achieve a healthy, well educated society with no homelessness or unemployment.

Where our taxes get allocated is difficult enough without it being compounded by the knock on effects of a recession. How would you choose between homes, health or education? If you just chose to bankroll those three where would that leave our emergency services who have also suffered from massive cuts to the extent that all three are having to scrabble around for staff and some basic resources in order to function at all e.g. equipment not being replaced when it has reached the point of being unrepairable and there are even rumours of fire and ambulance stations closing.

"Why not make them charities?" said one person to me this week. While the ambulance and fire services could be turned into charities (we have the precedent with mountain rescue, air ambulance and the RNLI), I don't think we should, and especially not when it comes to the police! Even so, the difficulty in financing these services does not go away.

When cuts are necessary, I don't believe it is wise to make them by getting shot of staff and particularly not the front line staff as they are the nuts and bolts of any operation. Far better to reduce hours and enter into job shares so that no one need end up being made redundant. In some ways recessions are good for decision makers as it forces people to spend wisely, of it should do. It neatly highlights what the priorities are and what are the essentials to any operation to enable it to function; hence downsizing to a smaller office and pooling resources through collaborations as well as finding more economical suppliers all help.

Lessons in education

Some sectors are hampered in being able to share resources though due to what I'll call governmental rating systems e.g. education. Ofsted is necessary in order to ensure that standards of education are upheld but recently this has led in some instances to some underhand practises from some educational establishments in order to secure that only the most adept students are taken on so that their Ofsted rating never drops. I heard of some schools going as far as sending out invites to the parents of the most successful GCSE students to get them to switch schools for their A levels. Such practises are not new, but it does highlight the negative side of governmental ratings.

While it is quite common for secondary schools to share some facilities with middle and junior schools it is far less common for them to do the same with other secondary schools and colleges. Who loses out? The students. It's almost unheard of for councils to pool resources and although the health service does try to it's far more complicated when some hospital facilities are so specialised and totally impractical for other hospitals to borrow. You can hardly expect them to be able to loan out an MRI scanner as at any point it might be needed in an emergency.

Loaning facilities and equipment is possibly the only way to survive in these times of austerity while finances remain so limited. I would advise networking like never before to maintain good standards of service. It's something that most charities, volunteer and social enterprises are adept in and accustomed to. What remains concerning though is how they are currently being forced to think more and more about funding streams at the potential risk of neglecting service delivery because of the sheer amount of time it takes up.

in my opinion, overall profit should not be the goal and top priority of any service for the community, services should be. Nothing wrong with aiming to make them all self-sustaining, but let's be honest, if we want to live in a world where we all have full access to any and all the services any of us might come to need most services will need subsidising at some point. If we don't won't we be in danger of losing them and if that were to happen wouldn't the problems merely escalate? We are all participants and customers when it comes to community services. How much poorer our lives would be without them and how much more difficult ordinary life would be.

Most alarmingly I recently saw a report this week about how business sponsorship was stretched to its limit now. As I've said before, the same amount of money must be around somewhere from 10 years ago, it can't simply disappear - unless it was never there to begin with. I can only hope that is not true as we could end up undoing all that has been ethically good that we should be proud of. Our nation has worked extremely hard over the last 100 years to get this far with regard to improving the quality of life for everyone living here, it would be to our eternal shame to let it slip or go to waste as aside from all else it helps make our nation economically stable and well... great!

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