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These boots were made for walking

No, not sandals. Not these days: more a choice between brogues for the meeting with the commissioner or a pair of trainers to chase down a potential donor; such are the divergent paths charities tread.

The brogues stride a route signposted with glossy tender documents, the others puff a convoluted excursion around the houses.

The awarding of contracts tends to go to well-polished shoes. Scuffed pumps are not overlooked as they are valued enormously as the authentic heart, or should that be sole, of the sector vital for consultation and mayoral photo opportunities.

Today in the charity sector it’s not all doom and gloom, just gloom. Curiously, for some losing public sector contracts can be oddly liberating. I hear more and more groups declare how glad they are to be out of the running and paradoxically can get the trainers back on. They can emerge from the gloom and find themselves back at where they started. As resources diminish and contractual restrictions grow there is a return to smaller volunteer and a user-led service. What the public sector gleefully and mistakenly then describe as ‘co-production’ but which the voluntary sector might see as going barefoot whilst the contract winners stroll off into the sunset. Winning contracts is not easy and the adherence to a competitive process that matches ambitions with service delivery expertise and local need is not unlike tying shoelaces.

Tying shoelaces

Like contracts we all believe we can tie them up properly and they start off fine. Then they undo for many and varied a reason, but fundamentally it’s because they were tied badly.

Parents tie their children’s shoes and they always come undone and there’s not a power in the land to stop that happening. They teach them how to tie their own shoes and they still come undone. Eventually, children discover the right way to tie a shoe lace for themselves. Some get round this by slip-ons but let’s not go there. That’s what public sector commissioners tend to do, fit the shoe and tie the laces.

They might look neat and tidy but what happens if they pinch? It might only be a blister but it stops you getting out and about. The phrase ‘to stand in another’s shoe’ suggests we might gain some insight from taking another’s position although its origin is from Norse culture and refers to when an adopted child puts on the shoes of the adopter. A folkloric counterpoint was when a woman newly widowed refused to remarry asserting her independence by ‘losing his shoe’.

So the next time your organisation loses a contract, take comfort – it might be a step in the right direction.

By Victor Willmott, London Catalyst’s Director


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