From ‘sectors’ to ‘system’: partnership working and civil society’s role in tackling inequality

Rt Hon Andy Burnham

Mayor of Greater Manchester

Civil society is at the heart of Greater Manchester’s response to Covid, reflecting the approach to governance that the city-region has developed over recent years. Further collaboration and a devolved funding solution will allow civil society to play a leading role in turning Greater Manchester’s three ‘sectors’ into a ‘system’ to tackle inequality.

In Greater Manchester, and across the UK, civil society has been at the forefront of responding to the crisis caused by Covid. The sector’s response has been incredible in its strength, its depth and the speed at which it mobilised. Civil society provided frontline services, with many Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) organisations increasing operational capacity to support the most vulnerable and isolated, from the provision of emergency food, to advice and advocacy, to mental health support, to completing physical tasks on behalf of those shielding.

Just as importantly, in Greater Manchester, the VCSE sector has provided strategic input to the city-region’s response structure and has led the way in demonstrating how sectors can pivot, collaborate and coordinate. Early feedback shows that around two-thirds of VCSE organisations have had to change the way that they work in the current crisis. Our VCSE infrastructure organisations have led on redeployment systems to provide direct support for people in vulnerable situations. Community Hubs have been established in each of our districts to provide food and medical supplies, and coordinate hardship grants for those in need.

As we learn to live with the virus, as a city-region, we are determined that ‘Building Back Better’ means better for everyone. Better must mean rethinking how all sectors work together with our communities to ensure that the economy works for us all. Better must mean new approaches to addressing inequalities in health, wealth and opportunity. Better must mean reframing how we view economic activity; rather than just a series of financial transactions related to consumption and financial wealth, we must seek to understand and include charitable and unpaid work, as well as collective ownership and leadership, in our concept of ‘economy’.

Greater Manchester’s rich civic history is reflected in the established VCSE sector we have today. The city-region is home to nearly 16,000 voluntary organisations, employing around 42,500 people with a turnover of £1.3 billion. Over the last 10 years, the sector has suffered chronic under-funding and under-recognition, but during the pandemic, local organisations have faced new challenges and pioneered innovative solutions as part of the emergency effort. Through my conversations with civil society leaders, workers and volunteers, I have identified a number of ways that we can unleash the potential of civil society as we move out of crisis to renewal.


We must foster collaboration across sectors at the local level to find sustainable solutions to the challenges we are facing

Since well before the pandemic, as a city-region we have been working together to integrate VCSE sector leaders into project and programme governance led by the public sector. In our Greater Manchester Model for Unified Public Services, ‘reform’ includes putting civil society at the heart of services provided for people in communities. Furthermore, Health and Social Care devolution in the city-region has seen the emergence of partnership structures at a Greater Manchester level around mental health, with VCSE organisations welcomed into these structures and representatives coming together to form a Greater Manchester VCSE’s Mental Health Forum. Co-design with expertise from civil society colleagues has helped to develop trust with local communities and extend the reach of services.

Civil society was, and continues to be, at the forefront of the response to the pandemic. We should ensure it is integral to designing our approach to recovery. As we settle into a ‘new normal’ of services in neighbourhoods and communities, VCSE services and support offers should be embedded and resourced alongside public services, rather than seen as an ‘add-on’ or ‘nice to have’. In our plans for the next round of Government spending, the VCSE sector is vital, from projects focussing on digital inclusion, to violence reduction programmes, to tackling rough sleeping and homelessness.

One way in which we can ensure this is achieved is through procurement. In partnership with local authorities, we are in the process of refreshing our Greater Manchester Social Value Framework. ‘Be part of a strong local community’ will be a key priority. This means looking at what opportunities there are in existing procurement systems as we move towards the concept of ‘social value’ being business as usual for organisations across all sectors in the city-region. Social value has long been championed by the VCSE sector, but over the years the concept has been ‘professionalised’ and not enough support has been given to smaller VCSE organisations to understand, collect data on and report their social value. As a result, time and time again contracts are handed to national providers with little knowledge of the local context and zero existing relationships with local communities. Locally driven and social value-based procurement can help provide more sustainable funding for civil society at the local level and develop our ecosystem of services.


We need a sustainable, devolved funding settlement for the civil society sector that will allow us to adapt quickly to local challenges

While we are still expecting an increased demand for support after the ‘first wave’ of the crisis passes, civil society is facing a financial cliff edge with up to an £85 million fall in trading and income for VCSE organisations across Greater Manchester alone. In our submission to the Government’s Spending Review, we made the case for a sustainable funding settlement for our communities alongside core public service funding, to address this gap.

Though the sector is undoubtedly under-funded, changes to how current budgets are spent would make a huge difference to the sector’s ability to deliver. All too often, large grants are announced by Government but awarded to a select few national organisations, with little to no money filtered down to community-level organisations, which run on a shoestring. What’s more, imposed conditions such as short-term grants and overly restrictive criteria on how funding can be spent are passed down to local organisations from disjointed and piecemeal pots of money, which is greatly limiting for small organisations who need to be able to adapt to the needs of communities they serve. With a single-pot settlement devolved to Greater Manchester from the Government, we can ensure that decisions around how money is distributed are made at the local level, by people who understand the place and its people best.


In tackling inequalities across our communities, we should consult and allow ourselves to be led by civil society, which has by its very nature always been at the forefront of this agenda

Early on, we heard claims that the pandemic is ‘a great leveller’; unfortunately, the opposite is true. There is now a substantive body of evidence that the worst effects of the Covid pandemic have traced and amplified pre-existing patterns of inequality in our communities. In order to draw together a body of evidence on tackling inequalities, inform recovery planning, and provide challenge to our work over the coming months, we have established a Greater Manchester Independent Inequalities Commission. The private and public sector have a lot to learn from civil society in this area. Greater Manchester’s civil society organisations, like others around the UK, tend to employ relatively more people from groups who are otherwise under-represented, such as those of Black, Asian and minority ethnic heritage, women and disabled people, or those who have other work-limiting conditions, physical impairments or mental health issues. There also tends to be more diversity in leadership, particularly by women. The public and private sector often makes the mistake of viewing civil society as a sector that has the most to gain from partnership, but this is absolutely not the case, in particular when it comes to expertise in areas like equalities. Furthermore, as a public sector, we should use our voice and reach to give a platform to civil society’s expertise, successes and concerns to influence wider agendas.


Digital infrastructure and data sharing must be seen and treated as a priority for civil society, just as it is in other sectors

As our lives and business transactions are increasingly mediated through technology, civil society often finds itself playing catch-up in terms of digital infrastructure and data sharing. This isn’t due to lack of innovation; on the contrary, the sector is at the forefront of adapting to way the world is changing around us. Lack of research and development funding for the VCSE sector and weak structures for sharing data from the national to regional or local level, means the digital sector is often seen as completely separate from the VCSE sector. In Greater Manchester we take an ‘ecosystem’ approach to developing and applying innovation across sectors. There are some organisations doing brilliant work in this space; Reason Digital, based in Manchester, partners with charities, individuals and Corporate Social Responsibility leaders to combat major societal issues through digital innovation.


We must recognise the social and financial value of volunteering, harness the volunteer base built during the pandemic and support capacity at the local level

Before the pandemic, 461,800 people in Greater Manchester were volunteering for 1.1 million hours per week and it has been fantastic to see interest in volunteering growing in recent months, both in Great Manchester and nationally. More than ever, across the city-region, capacity for managing and coordinating volunteering is stretched. Formal, district-level arrangements have been set up in each of the 10 local authority areas with a ‘VolunteerGM’ website established to direct users into arrangements by district. Informal, local mutual aid groups are also springing up all over the city-region showing an incredible citizen and community response to the crisis. As a Combined Authority, we have drawn up a one-year ‘Living with Covid’ resilience plan, in which we have committed to supporting the strengthening of volunteer management and coordination capacity across the city-region.


We need to better understand and support the ‘ecosystems’ of civil society in our places

The sector itself in Greater Manchester is organising as an ecosystem with a complex web of relationships built around a network of ‘anchor’ organisations with shared leadership. This creates a structure to allow interaction, dialogue and mobilisation at scale, with the ‘scaffolding’ of this ecosystem provided by VCSE anchor organisations. However, where they don’t already exist, the public and private sectors must build bridges and make links with civil society, to ensure that we are all pulling in the same direction and keep building on our current structures, so they can outlast the current emergency.

My vision, and that of other leaders across the city-region, is that within 10 years, civil society will be recognised and valued as a critical part of the inclusive economy that has been built in Greater Manchester. Civil society organisations will be seen as full and equal partners in a ‘system’ (not a ‘sector’) that is focussed on people and place, playing a vital role in addressing inequalities in wellbeing, wealth and living standards.