The Opportunities and Challenges of the Changing Public Services Landscape for the Third Sector in Scotland: A Longitudinal Study: Year Two Report

The report provides findings from the second year of a three year qualitative longitudinal study on the third sector in Scotland.


Chapter Summary

This section examines trends in partnership working as well as Third Sector Infrastructure bodies such as third sector interfaces, SCVO and local CVSs, and involvement in other partnership forums. Some of the trends in partnerships between TSOs and local authorities are explored followed by a look at the involvement of TSOs in service design.

Trends in partnership

TSOs were aware of the importance of partnership working as a means of meeting the challenges created by the policy and funding changes. Accessing funding was a key driver for partnerships and many were keen to be involved in more 'joined up' working. Opportunities for partnership working appeared to be on the increase, but the impact of funding cuts on their existing partners presented a potential future threat.

Third sector infrastructure

Intermediary bodies are those TSOs that exist to support the work of other TSOs. The research examined knowledge and involvement of TSOs in third sector interfaces. Since April 2011, each local area in Scotland has its own third sector interface to provide a single point of access to support and advice for the third sector within the local area. However, many TSOs were not aware of the new interfaces, and of those that were, there was a mixed response. While some were supportive of the principle, others were concerned with the potential effectiveness of the interfaces, especially for TSOs who worked across a number of different local areas.

Many felt that the SCVO (and indeed the local infrastructure bodies) provided a useful forum for representing the interests of the third sector and for supporting its work. However, others were concerned about a potential conflict of interest for SCVO as a service provider and about the ability of SCVO to represent the sector as a whole.

Membership forums, often representing particular interests, were valued most in terms of offering a platform to influence policy. Direct links with the Scottish Government, where accessible, were also highly valued.

Partnerships with local authorities

Many TSOs had good relationships with local authorities, and a number reported improved communication and dialogue with more opportunities to discuss how services could be organised in the light of cuts. However, others found difficulties accessing local authority staff, particularly where the local authority had undergone major departmental restructuring.

Involvement in service design

The system of competitive tendering usually involved a funder specifying the service required with limited scope for contractors to input into service design. Although just out of the pilot stage, Public Social Partnerships offer the potential for greater involvement of the third sector in the design of public services. Increased dialogue between local authorities and TSOs around services and the possibility of more open tendering may offer opportunities for TSOs to become more involved in the future.


5.1 Partnership working is a key tenet of Scottish Government policy in the delivery of public services31 . The aim is to deliver efficiencies and "innovative synergies in the way the services are designed and delivered"32 . The Year One report outlined the importance of partnership working for many TSOs before examining some of the factors that helped make partnerships successful as well as some of the challenges faced. There was also a belief at that time that partnership working was likely to become increasingly important in the future in order to meet the challenges of the changing policy and funding environment, particularly in order to manage reduced funding. This section follows up this issue and looks at the trends in partnership working noted by TSOs since Year One of the research. These include the perception that partnership working was becoming increasingly important as well as some of the potential impacts on TSOs when their partners fall victim to funding cuts. The tension between partnership and competition, however, remained an issue.

Trends in partnership working

5.2 A number of participants in Year One felt that partnerships would become increasingly important in the future in order to continue to deliver services in a tight financial climate. By Year Two, this view had gained even greater currency. This was partially related to changes in funding structures, for instance, the Work Programme restricted funding to large organisations with significant cash reserves and this required smaller organisations to work in partnership in order to compete for the money. However, others expressed the view that it was also about aligning more closely with 'natural allies' (i.e. those working in a similar field, or with the same/similar client groups or utilising similar approaches). In some cases this led to mergers - (see 3.18-3.24).

5.3 One of the key drivers for partnerships was to access funding, although a number of participants felt that the potential of partnership working generally had not been fully exploited. For instance, some felt there could be significantly more 'joined up' working, more sharing of good practice and greater working with the private sector. Some felt that the current environmental pressures may encourage more 'joined up' working which would ultimately be beneficial for clients.

5.4 Some also felt that the opportunities for new partnerships had increased since Year One. For instance, one felt there were more organisations wanting to form partnerships with his/her TSO because they were keen to expand into their TSO's part of the sector. However, others felt there was a lack of interest in partnership working among some of the larger TSOs.

5.5 The partners of some TSOs had been hard hit by the current environment and had to substantially reduce services or close down altogether. Although this was not reported as being particularly common in Year Two, it did have the potential to have a significant impact on surviving partners. For instance, some TSOs had already noted higher numbers of referrals (see 2.59) because of partners closing down. Another had noted that there were fewer services to refer clients onto for the same reason. Another organisation had reduced service provision because partners could no longer provide resources:

There are lots of organisations that want to work with us because we can provide the people, we've got a very good set up.....all those organisations are now struggling financially, so what's beginning to happen is that people are saying "We'd love to carry on working with you but we can't afford it any longer"....we network very well and lots of people want to work with us but the impact of the cuts on them in turn has an impact on us.

Senior Manager, Local Learning Provider

5.6 Other TSOs were also concerned about the potential future impact of partners closing down on their ability to deliver services, although they had not experienced any issues to date:

Thinking about it...contacts might be lost because we wouldn't have the partners to work with that could offer the breadth and depth, we would have a much narrower focus…It has the potential to very much damage the organisation because there would be work that we could get as part of a consortium or partnership that we couldn't get just as [an organisation] on its own.

Senior Manager, Local Learning Provider

5.7 As the full impact of spending cuts becomes apparent over the next year or so, this may become an issue across many organisations in the sector.

5.8 While the need for partnership was becoming more important, some participants also expressed the view that the 'sense of being in competition' with other similarly focused TSOs had at the same time increased:

We know we need to increase our collaborative working, our partnership working...Organisations tend to close in...we had just got to the point before all this happened of being open with each other...we'd shared what we were doing and we were confident people wouldn't take that idea and take it away and make it their own...they had enough income that they didn't have to be reinventing themselves and taking new ideas that weren't theirs, and all of a sudden that's changed again. People aren't sharing things now because of this very real worry that an organisation will see an idea and think 'we're now very fast of the mark, we'll just take that'...That's a huge issue at the time when we should be opening ourselves up more and working more in partnership, the tendency is to shut that down.

Senior Manager, Regional Learning Provider

5.9 The ultimate impact on partnership working was as yet unclear as one respondent summed up:

I'm not sure if we are going to end up with more collaboration or more competition, I just don't know.

Senior Manager, Equalities Focus Group

5.10 Some participants were of the opinion that organisations that would not normally have gone for some pots of money were now entering the competition if there was any connection to their work. This created a temptation to move from the organisation's core remit (also see 3.3-3.6). There was also a perception that many offers for partnerships were based purely on organisational self-interest in order to get a funding contract rather than any desire for a long-term relationship and real complementarity. Because of this one organisation was considering using a systematic framework for helping to them to decide on how to respond to requests for partnership.

Case Study Five: Creating an assured partners network across Scotland

This case study examines the development of a network of TSOs which brings together 153 potential partners with a diverse range of skills and competencies to the development and delivery of services.


Organisation B is a large, Scottish based social enterprise. The organisations' core activities focus on employability, regeneration and sustainability. Programmes delivered by the organisation help provide people with new skills in the labour market, help for ex-offenders and sustainability advice for corporate and private customers. In 2010, the organisation helped 5,500 into employment and helped reduce the carbon emissions of 150,000 houses.

Organisation B is an important provider of services across Scotland and the north of England. Senior managers within the organisation were seeking to diversify their activities whilst ensuring that they remained faithful to the values and mission of the organisation. Partnerships with other third sector and social enterprises were seen as key to the diversification of activities. Partnership allowed greater mutuality among organisations and a recognition of the complementary skills and expertise that different organisations could bring to the delivery of services. There was a strong ethos of working together with other third sector and private sector organisations to develop strong tenders for new services and improve the delivery of existing services. A senior manager described how:

You're always looking for a kind of win-win approach in terms of building that partnership…because partnership comes from forming good strong relationships. If there's an honesty in the partnership you can absolutely have a situation whereby you can compete and you can collaborate.

Recently the organisation had developed a large partnership network of 153 third sector organisations across Scotland. The network was implemented to provide an assured network of potential partners who could bring a diverse range of skills and competencies to the development and delivery of services. The diversification of the organisations' activities was seen as key to being able to survive anticipated funding cuts. By creating an 'assured partnership network' the organisation could draw upon a wide range of skills and experience and ensure that other Scottish TSOs could share in the benefits of successful bids.

Each of the 153 TSOs have been brought into the network so that they may offer their skills to participate in the delivery of a public contract. Organisation B is one of the largest TSOs in Scotland and has considerable financial, human and technological assets that can be applied to the delivery of bids. TSOs that are a part of the assured network may be invited to participate in a bid if they have particular strengths or experiences relevant to the bid. Organisation B undertook an assessment of the capabilities of organisations within the network and had rated them using silver or bronze categories to create a Third Sector supply chain.

We've got fantastic partnerships which created that improved partnership network of 153 organisations, so we're linked to 153 organisations in ways that we hadn't needed to in the past - now we always said that that wasn't just going to be about the Work Programme but a whole range of opportunities, so we've got a really good base going forward and because we've not committed our finance to that programme, we have the finance to invest in other things and what we would want to ensure is that our managing agency, capacity that we developed in managing supply chains is built upon as well - it might not be on that programme but potentially in other areas where we could bring that to bear - so it's really looking at those key strengths that we have invested in last year in that whole process of professionalisation and understanding and being business-like but being business-like but absolutely driven by our values.

At the time of the interview it was too early to tell what the impact of the network would be. A senior manager described his desire for smaller third sector organisations to share in the benefits that arose from winning large scale contracts.

Third sector infrastructure: intermediary bodies

5.11 Intermediary bodies (sometimes called umbrella bodies or local development agencies) are those TSOs that exist to support the work of other TSOs. They can be generic ones that cover all functions (such as CVSs), ones that serve a particular group of TSOs (such as Play Associations) or ones that support a particular function (such as Volunteer Bureaux). They can also exist at the local community, regional or national level (such as SCVO). Previous research has indicated that they are an essential element of a thriving third sector, but are not without their own challenges, either as organisations or for the sector33 .

Local infrastructure: 'Third Sector Interfaces'

5.12 From April 2011, new local intermediaries for the third sector were established in Scotland - the 'Third Sector Interfaces'. Each local area has a newly established interface with clear links to Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs) and Single Outcome Agreements. The purpose of the interfaces was to provide a single point of access to support and advice for the third sector within the local area and also to provide strong coherent and cohesive representation for the third sector on the community planning partnership.

5.13 In Year One CPPs were perceived by TSOs as the key way in which the third sector were involved in community decision-making, experiences and issues related to which are outlined in the Year One report. In Year Two, TSOs were asked specifically about their knowledge of third sector interfaces.

5.14 Given that the interfaces only came on stream properly in April 2011 it is therefore perhaps not surprising that many respondents had not heard about these forums. Among the respondents who had heard about the interfaces, there had been limited actual involvement, probably because interfaces were still developing or bedding in. Of those who were familiar with the concept of the Third Sector Interfaces, some were supportive in principle, particularly in respect of involving smaller local TSOs. However, a number were concerned about the potential effectiveness of interfaces, particularly for TSOs working across a number of different local authority areas:

If you are a small, local charity with 10 staff and you need support and you are bound to one local authority then the third sector interface gives you a voice. If you are a large charity I'm not sure it does give you a voice…we can bring a lot of influence to a small interface but if you have to work with a lot of local authorities then you have to interface with every interface so I'm not sure of the value to the voluntary sector. In theory it is a great idea.

Senior Manager, Health and Social Care Focus Group

5.15 Respondents thought that some of the same issues with Community Planning Partnerships identified in the Year One report, would be the same for the single interfaces, for instance, the practical issues of working across many different local authorities and obtaining balanced representation of the sector. TSOs did not appear to have had a great deal of communication from their local interfaces, and this may be a particular issue for TSOs working across a number of areas.

That's something we are continuing to try to find a way into…[e.g. third sector interfaces] it's not particularly easy at the moment because the single interfaces are actually focusing a lot of their energy on the local context and they're not looking to see what national agencies of the small variety..[are doing]. The onus at the moment seems to be on the organisation to try to find a route in rather than on the single interface to make sure they are providing a route in not just for local organisations but for national ones as well.

Senior Manager, Regional Learning Provider

5.16 Since the bulk of the fieldwork for Year Two was carried out prior to April 2011, when the single interfaces officially came into being, it is too early to draw any conclusions about their impact on TSOs. However, this will be a key question to follow-up in Year Three when the interfaces should have had an opportunity to make an impact.

Case Study Six: Development of an independent third sector interface in Aberdeen

This case study explains how ACVO set up the Aberdeen Third Sector Interface with the key aim of developing and strengthening networks in the local area.


Aberdeen Council of Voluntary Organisations

Aberdeen Council of Voluntary Organisations (ACVO) was formerly part of the city's major social care charity, VSA.

In 2009, The Aberdeen City Alliance (TACA, the former body of Aberdeen's Community Planning Partnership) agreed that ACVO would take on the role of being the Third Sector Interface for Aberdeen.

The initial motive to set up the Aberdeen Third Sector Interface (opened at Greyfriars House on 1st April 2010) was a recognition of the need for a structured and stable system of representation for voluntary organisations working with local authorities. Despite its early form (the CVS) stemming from a VSA initiative, this aim required an independent organisation in order for representation to be legitimate and impartial, thus driving towards the establishment of a completely independent body.

Two further aims were, firstly, the creation of a shared resource for development support of small TSOs unable to afford certain in-house skills/services (e.g. training, funding advice etc.) and secondly, increasing communication across local TSOs (e.g. newsletters, advert boards etc.)

Issues that emerged during the set up process included:

  • Ensuring financial stability, incorporating the European Framework for Quality Management (EFQM)
  • Encouraging membership of ACVO
  • Integrating the Single Interface concept within ACVO (i.e. CVS, Volunteer Centre and engaging with Local Social Economy Partnership (LSEP)
  • Developing a strategic response to the Single Outcome Agreement.

These issues mostly remain on-going although the integration of CVS/Volunteer Centre (also formerly part of VSA) is seen as both a challenge and an opportunity. EFQM led the ACVO team to review its planning process and develop a Business Plan which was more responsive to wider SWOT analysis.

The main aim now for ACVO is to firmly establish itself as 'the' Third Sector Interface in Aberdeen, with the development and strengthening of networks as a key strategy. Further strategic objectives going forward are outlined in the Annual Report 2009-2010 / Strategic Objectives, and include:

  • Providing an accessible, sustainable and flexible one-stop shop on volunteering, voluntary action and active citizenship
  • Building on their impact in supporting the third sector and connecting with the wider community and private and public sectors
  • Sustaining and developing their recognition by Community Planning partners and others as the primary conduit with the third sector
  • Proactively seeking investment opportunities available to the third sector as a result of public sector financial constraints
  • Increasing diversification of ACVO income
  • More actively developing social enterprise and entrepreneurism in the third sector
  • Restructuring service delivery into 3 operational business units:
  • Enterprise & Sustainability
  • Voluntary Action and Active Citizenship
  • Stronger and More Connected Voices.

National infrastructure: relationships with Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

5.17 The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a membership organisation promoting the interests of the third sector in Scotland. It offers a range of services to members including: lobbying and campaigning on behalf of the sector; networking and development opportunities; information and advice; and payroll services (among others). SCVO's membership is estimated to encompass more than two thirds of the sector.

5.18 Most of the TSOs in this study were involved with SCVO, but the level of involvement varied between different TSOs. Many felt that the SCVO (and indeed the local infrastructure bodies) provided a useful forum for representing the interests of the third sector and for supporting its work. However, others were concerned about the ability of SCVO to represent the sector as a whole, particularly the views of smaller organisations (and indeed this is a tension that SCVO itself recognised), and some TSOs also expressed a concern that there could be a conflict of interest for SCVO as a service provider. This is a tension that the previous research, above, also recognised - recommending that such service provision, where appropriate, was kept at 'arm's length' from the representative and advocacy functions of both local and national intermediary bodies.

Involvement in other partnership forums

5.20 Most TSOs were involved with a range of other partnership forums. Commonly, these took the form of membership forums representing particular interests, for instance, types of forums included: social care and mental health; youth; employability and supported employment; and learning forums. These forums varied in the geographical coverage and covered different levels including the local, Scottish or UK-level. TSOs paid a membership fee to these forums and in return got access to a range of services (which varied depending on the specific forum) that might include: information and awareness raising; organisational support and development; policy development and lobbying; research; training, education and quality standards. TSOs valued the services provided by these forums and for some, these were perceived to be the most effective way for them to have an input into policy. Some TSOs were members of more general forums which represent, for instance, social enterprises, or the voluntary sector in Scotland.

5.21 Some TSOs had close contact with specific individuals or departments within the Scottish Government and felt that they were able to have direct input at that level. Some were regularly invited to take part in specialist committees run by the Scottish Government. In particular, one organisation worked in a particular niche area where there were only two other organisations across Scotland covering similar issues. These three organisations were reported to often be invited onto committees covering their specific issue (which also happened to be a current policy priority).

5.22 An officer in a large TSO working across Scotland described how they sought to influence policy on the issues concerning them:

[It] depends what the issue is. If it's a health issue we tend to work directly with government, (and) we tend to do that alone. Where it's a Westminster issue we are much more inclined to do a Consortium-type approach. We are involved in the Disability Benefits Consortium which is something like 25 different organisations working together, particularly on the Welfare Rights Bill. And that makes sense because… there are hundreds of different organisations trying to get their voice heard on benefits reform the context of the UK we're a small Scottish organisation, we wouldn't really get a hearing, whereas in the context of Scotland we're a big charity and we're quite well respected, we have a decent relationship with government, so it makes sense for us to be able to do that directly.

Senior Manager, National Health and Social Care Provider

Partnerships with local authorities

5.23 Many TSOs reported having continued good relationships with local authorities over the last year. However, there had been some challenges to these partnerships. Respondents noted that several local authorities had or were undergoing major structural changes and this presented challenges to maintaining relationships. For instance, a couple of TSOs noted significant re-organisation taking place in the two local authorities with whom they worked (both these organisations worked only in one area). The loss of known contacts affected the quality of relationships, communication and information about priorities. For instance,

I used to have a very good knowledge of who was there...I knew people there and I felt supported but actually now they've changed so much...I went up to a meeting...all the old faces I knew are feels like I don't have any links now that I had before.

Senior Manager, Equalities Focus Group

5.24 Many TSOs claimed that there had been increased communication and dialogue with local authorities in the last year. This was usually around renegotiation of the continuation of existing services, for instance how an existing service could be provided within the requirement to meet cuts. Although these discussions were more dominated by finance concerns than earlier, managers in at least one TSO felt confident enough to be able to have an honest discussion about the implications of cuts to services with funders. However, a couple of TSOs felt that dialogue with local authorities had become more difficult and they had become more distant and difficult to engage with. One respondent thought this might be because of the uncertainty within local authorities about their own budgets. As we have already seen (see 2.40) there was a great deal of variation between local authorities in their approaches to policy and funding and this was also the case in relation to partnership working too:

It's a mixed picture. In some authorities they're becoming much more distanced in their relationship with us as they increasingly worry about how to relate to us in a competitive market. In other areas you find that because of the value that we add, that that relationship is becoming much more a partnership, so it depends on the authorities' approach to commissioning.

Senior Manager, Employability Focus Group

5.25 Some TSOs thought that larger TSOs with financial resources which they could bring to partnerships with local authorities benefited from increased 'parity of esteem', e.g. more equal partnership with local authorities:

For instance, we are looking at supporting the council to re-provision a children's home where they would do the building and we would provide…funding from a 3rd party trust to keep the contract running. If they work with us, they get the benefit of added value and we get the value of tying into the community strategy. It is early stages, but it is beginning to pay off. It changes the perception [of us] from a charity who wants money from the council to run their services to a charity who could bring added [finance] to their services and more expertise etc.

Senior Manager, Health and Social Care Focus Group

5.26 In the longer term, some thought this might lead to a new model of partnership working with local authorities:

We have to get them to see us as more than users of their funds as we provide a lot of money too. They need to see the added value of the third sector in its fundraising as well as its innovation. As a sector we should publicise good examples which would enhance the model of being a partner which would benefit everybody, especially the service user.

Senior Manager, Health and Social Care Focus Group

Involvement in service design

5.27 There is increasing recognition of the benefits of involving third sector organisations in the design of public services in order to incorporate their knowledge and expertise to help to ensure that services are designed to meet user needs. The system of competitive tendering usually involves a funder specifying the service which it would like to contract and asking for tenders from organisations to deliver this. In this system, there is a limit to the extent to which TSOs can input into the design of services. In order to facilitate the greater involvement of TSOs in service design, the Public Social Partnerships (PSP) model has been developed in recent years. Some TSOs also noted some potential trends which may result in increased involvement in service design.

Public Social Partnerships

5.28 The public-social partnership model involves the public sector and the third sector working together to design and deliver public services with the aim of improving outcomes for local communities. The government is also keen that the model will "see the private and public sectors make greater use of third sector expertise and services"34 . The model was piloted with 10 PSPs for a period of 2 years from 200935 , the outcomes of which informed the recent Scottish Government guidance36.

5.29 One of the focus groups' participants in the research had been involved with a pilot PSP. This organisation had had to work hard to produce a good partnership because of an initial imbalance of power. However, they were positive about PSPs as a model for designing and implementing services and their experiences had helped to inform the Scottish Government guidance (see above). None of the other TSOs had direct experience of working with PSPs.

5.30 PSPs could potentially be a model that has more influence in the future on the design and delivery of public services. Therefore, it would be timely in Year Three of this research to investigate the knowledge and involvement of TSOs in PSPs to see if these partnerships are beginning to have a wider take-up and impact on the third sector in Scotland.


5.31 One participant noted a change to the way in which their local authority was tendering. The local authority had asked the TSO to present a costed service delivery plan37 rather than the local authority specifying the service they wanted to contract. If this becomes a wider trend in future, as this particular interviewee felt that it might do in the employability field, then this may offer increased opportunities for greater involvement of TSOs in the design of services.

5.32 Potential cuts to services had, for some, actually created greater opportunity for negotiating the shape of services. Some local authorities had contacted TSOs and were talking to them directly about how services could be re-designed within budget requirements, allowing a significant input from the TSOs (see 5.24).


5.33 TSOs were aware of the importance of partnership working as a means of meeting the challenges created by the policy and funding changes. Many were keen to be involved in more 'joined up' working and were taking advantage of increased partnership opportunities, but the impact of funding cuts on their existing partners presented a potential future threat. The intermediary bodies that appeared to be most successful in offering TSOs a platform to influence policy were specialist partnership forums (e.g. membership forums) and direct links with government. The experience of partnership working with local authorities varied, with some reporting better communication and dialogue while others reporting lower levels of contact. There were indications that opportunities for involvement in service design by the third sector may be increasing, although it was too early to be certain if these would effectively materialise.


Email: Kay Barclay

Back to top