NGOs and the shifting sands of a competitive marketplace.

By Hitendra Patel 

Over the past three decades, government provision of social services has become increasingly decentralised and replaced by non-government organisations on contract (NGOs). A marketplace has been created where multiple providers tender for government contracts to provide social services. The retrenchment of government involvement in social services is ideologically driven and justified by advocates as a fiscally responsible means of delivering social services bypassing cumbersome and ineffective state mechanisms.

Observing the workings of a market model within my local community in West Auckland, three large social service providers are located within a short geographic distance of each other servicing the same marginalised client base while competing against each other for increasingly scarce government funding. VisionWest, Te Whanau O Waipareira Trust (TWOWT) and the Salvation Army provide and replicate many services, food banks, counselling services, healthcare support, wrap-around social work services and youth at risk programmes. Both the Salvation Army and TWOWT also offer alcohol, and drug counselling and VisionWest and the Salvation Army are also involved in the provision of social housing. While these organisations operate nearby, forced competition in the NGO sector discourages collaboration and the pooling of resources and simultaneously encourages a duplication and fragmentation of services.

NGOs operate in a financially unstable climate where their viability is dependent on securing government contracts which require them to operate in defined methods and meet prescribed targets and outcomes (O’Brien, 2014). Government contracts are often short-term, and criterion and eligibility for funding can rapidly shift. ‘Funder capture’ by the state prevents NGO’s from being overly critical of government policy despite the unsuitability of policy to practice (ComVoices, 2016). The recent comments made by National MP Alfred Ngaro suggests that fear of lost revenue and future reprisals are well founded.

The instability of funding in the NGO sector is transmitted to the workforce, where additional administrative tasks, increasing workloads are changing the nature of the social work role to one which is linked to meeting performance targets as well as managing caseloads (O’Brien, 2014). The ComVoices 2016 survey of the NGO sector reported workloads as steadily rising because of increased client demand and greater compliance, outcome and accountability requirements. As NGOs operate under greater constraints with fewer resources and specific results focus, the often complex needs of disadvantaged clients that do not fit within pre-defined measures remain unmet (O’Brien, 2014).

Proponents of market models suggest that social service clients (or consumers) are presented with a plethora of choice, allowing them to make informed decisions and select a service which best suits their needs (Productivity Commission, 2015). However, such an understanding is based on a number of erroneous and unrealistic assumptions. Clients are viewed as acting in their individual interests, unhindered or unencumbered by their life circumstances and immune to historical, cultural or structural marginalisation. This notion of ‘choice’ assumes a degree of privilege, ready access to information, and mobility on behalf of clients who are the most disadvantaged members of the community.

While the competitive model of social services provision is decades old and continues, there has been little to no evidence to suggest or support market models as either cost effective, an optimal means of delivering social services or improving the lives of the disadvantaged.

References

ComVoices Advancing the Community Sector (2016). 2016 State of the Sector, Survey Snapshot.

Wellington, NZ: ComVoices Advancing the Community Sector. Retrieved from  https://comvoicesdotwordpressdotcom.files.wordpress.com/2016/10/comvoices-2016-state-of-the-sector-survey-snapshot-final-25-oct.pdf

O’Brien, M. (2014). The world we’re in: Social work now and then. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work26(2/3), 6-16. Read here

New Zealand Productivity Commission (2015). More effective social services summary version. August 2015. Wellington, NZ: New Zealand Productivity Commission. Retrieved from http://www.productivity.govt.nz/sites/default/files/social-services-final-report-summary-version.pdf

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About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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