Responding to pressures on community organisations to be bigger: understanding and considering your options
In New South Wales, especially since the mid 1990s, there have been numerous changes affecting human service systems that are increasing pressures on human service organisations to be bigger - because ‘bigger’ has advantages over ‘smaller’ for organisations in the current human services context.
There may or may not be advantages for the individuals, families, neighbourhoods and communities that the organisations exist to serve.
Changes and pressures
The changes and pressures include:
All of these change have in common the consequence that larger organisations have advantages of scale over smaller organisations.
In essence ‘scale’ has become an important factor in getting contracts, maintaining organisational infrastructure, having access to specialist knowledge and skills, having the ability to generate other sources of income, and so on.
Individual, family and community connections
Human service organisations provide services to individuals and families in neighbourhoods and local communities. At their best, human service organisations have the capacity to:
Small organisations have their own history, values and identity - that is often tied to a local community. Small organisations typically value being connected with their local community, flexible meeting people’s needs, etc and have the capacity to do this.
Larger organisations value these things but can easily become ‘bureaucratised’ and in turn less well connected with the local community and the people who live there. Economies of scale also bring standardised policies, systems and ways of doing things. It can be easy for a larger organisation to become less flexible and responsive from the client’s point of view.
How are the pressures for economies of scale balanced with the need for responsive flexible services well connected with and ‘owned by’ the local community?
Small and medium organisations are finding themselves in situations where they must make tough choices. Some possible responses include:
1. Do nothing (for some organisations the consequence of this will be they don’t win new contracts and so become unviable).
2. Identify what you most value about your existing organisation and work to ensure what’s most valued continues in one form or another.
3. Get known and develop a wide support base in your local community.
4. If your organisation is not likely to be viable, then acknowledge this is the case and actively transfer your contracts to another you see as being able to best meet the needs of the local community.
5. Establish formal partnerships with other organisations to gain economies of scale.
6. Collaborate with other organisations to develop “service hubs” that can provide specialist support services to several small organisations.
7. Be part of a consortium where several organisations come together to create a new entity which all the participating organisations own/control.
8. Amalgamate with one or more other organisations.
9. Advocate for changes to the tendering process.
10. Be part of the restructure of the entire funding system in your community (begin with a clean slate and start again - a somewhat radical option).
Larger organisations also have tough choices. Some of the options are similar to those above - identifying what's of value, partnerships and consortiums. Others include re-defining the ways in which they relate to smaller organisations and dealing with the intended and unintended consequences of this.
Local government may have an important role to play. It is ideally located to work with the local community to identify the community's vision, values, needs and directions. It is also in a position to facilitate work with human service organisations in collaborating together to achieve the local community’s vision and directions and meet the local community needs. If Local government plays these roles it could make a significant contribution to supporting organisations working in the local community in meeting local community needs in flexible and responsive ways.
Government departments which let contracts for services also need to give full consideration to the impact of the way they let tenders - both the intended and unintended consequences.
Whose best interests?
In considering the tough choices to be made it is important to ask whose interests are being served? What is in the best interests of:
What are the competing values?
In considering the tough choices it is important to recognise the competing values. For example:
Organisations are making tough choices. In thinking about what choices are to be made it may be important to consider what stories you are in:
Note: These reflections were prompted by the Workshop Thriving Organisations? held in Nowra on 27th April 2007