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Service delivery should not be a priority focus for NGO work
In the following paper I will discuss whether service delivery should be or not a priority focus for NGO work and I shall concentrate my attention especially on public services delivery.
This paper identifies in the first chapter some of the motifs that plead for NGOs’ service delivery involvement. In the second chapter I summarize the weaknesses of NGOs service delivery, as they are presented in literature.
The final chapter presents the conclusions with reference to the topic of the essay.
The content of NGOs’ services
“The voluntary sector is nothing if not diverse” (Reading, 1994, p. 5)
Service delivery is one of the four main functions of an NGO, as per Najam’s (1999) definition, closely related to the other three: advocacy, innovation and monitoring. In his definition service delivery represents “acting directly to do what needs to be done” (Lewis, 2000, p. 121).
What are the activities undertaken by NGOs in service providing?
There is a large range of activities, starting with basic healthcare services, continuing with all range of educational programs (including cultural activities typical to a certain community), housing, support and counseling. NGOs could engage as well in activities that deal with local or global environmental problems. What differs from one country to another is the level of participation.
For instance in UK “the voluntary sector is the largest provider of staffed residential care for adults with physical or sensory disabilities, learning disabilities, and alcohol or drug problems; and of hospice care; and is a substantial provider of mental health services and many specialist child welfare services” (Kendal and Knapp, 1996, p. 237). In the Nordic countries “most health and social care services are funded from tax revenue and are provided by public – either local or regional – authorities” (Lehto, Moss, Rostgaard, 1999, p. 104).
Who are the beneficiaries of the services provided by NGOs?
As non-profit organizations, NGOs can thoroughly concentrate on the humanitarian value of their services. Being organizations free of profit seeking, NGOs can point their resources – financial and human – towards helping the poor and the socially excluded ones. These are the traditional beneficiaries of NGOs’ services. But in our days not only poor and disadvantaged are services recipients; the general population could benefit as well. It is the case of “Shakespeare Birthplace Trust” with main activity the preservation and the promotion of Shakespeare’s birthplace. The Trust does not receive any public or governmental funds and depends entirely on donors and incomes from visitors.
Strengths that make NGOs services desirable
Service delivery is an activity that rests at the very heart of NGO’s existence and philosophy. Kramer (1981) speaks about the fact that “one of the primary functions of the voluntary agency is to pioneer in developing services and to pave the way for their adoption by governmental bodies” (Kramer, 1981, p. 173), while Jones (1996) goes one step further and states that in UK “the interdependence of the state and voluntary sectors has in many ways increased, with voluntary organizations (especially in the field of social welfare) becoming mainstream providers of services commissioned and funded by state agencies” (Jones, 1996, p. 41)
The NGOs are known to have provided public services mainly when the State was weak and incapable of supplying its citizens with basic services. It is the case of Africa – especially the conflict zones of Southern Sudan, Somalia, as cited in Clayton et al (2000) – where the NGOs became unique providers of healthcare and water supply.
But there are countries where even if the State remains the main service provider, as India and Latin America (Clayton et al, 2000), the NGOs are deeply engaged in monitoring the quality of these services and their correspondence to people’s needs.
NGOs provided services and solutions where the State could not offer valid answers to the existing problems.
Reading (1994) identifies the strengths that explain the better provision of public services from NGOs. Among them is important to be noted:
“1. capacity to innovate, experiment and test new ideas;
2. flexibility, and the ability to respond quickly to changing needs;
3. good community links;
4. cost – effectiveness, arising from their ability to target on very specific groups, localities or issues;
5. the capacity to promote change, challenge vested interests and campaign for improved services;
6. the opportunity to involve members of the community in planning and monitoring services;
7. the status to act as advocates for particular groups;
8. the potential to give people a sense of power and influence over the decisions which affect their lives” (Labor Party Consultation Document, 1990, cited in Reading, 1994, p. 7)
I could identify some more traits specific to NGOs’ services:
1. the specificity of services: NGO identifies a problem and acts for its solving. The expertise and experience gained in diverse situations makes the services to be better adapted to the needs.
Because NGOs have a direct connection to people that face a problem, and thus, direct access to citizens concerns and difficulties. The solution provided does not belong to a general frame, but is designed to solve individual problems. In this specificity of the solution, that takes into account both the people and the environment affected, rests the high efficiency of NGOs’ services. In comparison with the results obtained by a governmental service providing, which in most cases applies general solutions and not individually designed ones, the NGOs solutions will hence be perceived as better, more consistent with people needs and demands.
David Davis, who said: “the voluntary sector has a far greater ability to take a holistic approach and to take responsibility for the problems of the whole person” (Mohr, 2005, p. 32), backs up this perception.
The preference towards NGOs’ services finds an interesting explanation on Kramer, that states “others regard voluntary agencies as intrinsically preferable, because of their presumed greater flexibility, capacity for innovation, and use of volunteers, or, in some cases, because they serve as a brake on further expansion of government bureaucracy” (Kramer, 1981, p. 250).
Of course that there are other opinions regarding the efficiency of NGOs services. As Clayton et al (2000) note, the impact studies concentrated on NGO activities do not prove without denial that NGOs are more efficient than governmental institutions in helping the poorest, while Kramer (1981) notes that in fact, as by their involvement hide the basic weaknesses of the governmental services, “voluntary agencies risk perpetuating second-rate, substitute programs and thus in the long run depriving clientele of more effective services” (Kramer, 1981, p. 250).
Weaknesses in NGO service delivery that could limit quality of services provided by NGOs
As NGO service delivery is not profit oriented, I consider that the shortcomings of this activity should be assessed mainly as regards to the quality of these services.
Among the factors that affect the quality of services delivered by NGOs there are:
a) Limited funds.
It is important to note that limited funds constitute an impediment on the quality of services, as Reading (1994) points out.
The implication of limited funds is that a partnership between NGOs and State in contracting the public services is desirable. The only disputable thing would be the percentage of the State funds in total funding system of NGOs. The most important concern related to the amount of government support touches the delicate matter of independence and non-conformity to government’s views, when it is the case.
It is well known that the donors condition their help and dictate the terms. When the State involves in NGOs’ financing, it behaves as any other donor, it dictates standards of performance, rules for monitoring and accountability. And this could generate the “rise to the danger that they become dominated by input or process indicators, rather than quality or user outcome measures” (Kendall and Knapp, 1996, p. 230).
In order to secure the future financing, the NGOs might change something in their policy and submit totally to governmental requests, regardless they are similar or not to their credo. As Kramer considers, “voluntary agencies will have to work hard to avoid being a tool of government, particularly when they work inside a framework determined by government and are dependent on it for funds” (Kramer, 1981, p.251).
In order to avoid such a situation, NGOs established funding rules, which, according to Smillie (1995) are: Scandinavian NGOs restrict governmental share of funding to 50% of their total funds, while Oxfam UK restricts to 20% of total the state’s funding contribution; at Oxfam America the restriction is total, the organization receives no governmental funds.
Balancing the need for funds with the need for independent voice and autonomy is one of the fundamental issues that an NGO must deal with.
I found two interesting cases that reveal the different two faces of the same coin. First example, Medecins du Monde UK wants to keep total independent of State funding and reject any contractual agreement with NHS bodies.
On contrary, Terrence Higgins Trust experience shows that “NHS contracting is for them the best way to deliver their services” (Peta Wilkinson quoted in Third Sector, 2005, p. 56). This example shows that the relation between the percentage of State funding and the efficiency of the voluntary organization is by no means unique and definitive.
b) Difficult large scale coordination
Each NGO has a specific expertise and experience in a certain type of service. There are NGOs that provide health services: help for breast cancer cases (Breast Cancer Care); help for having healthier children (National Childbirth Trust); others provide services in education.
The narrow specialization proves to be in the same time a strong point and a weak point in NGOs’ activity.
For instance, there is a high probability that an organization specialized in gender equality for women will deliver this; there is a high probability that an organization specialized in HIV prevention will eventually attain its goals. The narrower is the specialization, the better chances for a good result there is, in my opinion.
But a narrow specialization of services has its weak point too: it makes difficult a large scale coordination of activities, a national long-term vision so that the resources to be planned and allocated where a shortage in services is identified. And this it seems to be difficult to be attained by NGOs, according to Robinson and White (1997), cited in Clayton et al (2000), as NGOs cannot provide a framework where to be integrated regional and national levels. In my view this large-scale coordination is difficult mainly because of the specific character of each NGOs service: even if there are many NGOs concerned with, for instance, healthcare, they have specific expertise inside the huge domain of healthcare.
The need for coordination of NGOs service providing arises from the need to avoid scattering of resources: time, money, and personnel. The trend for decentralization is always followed by a need for a coordinating central point, where all the needs, claims and desires of the civil society to be collected. It is required an organism able to do the coordination of NGOs activities.
c) Difficulty to evaluate the results, difficulty for transparent accountability.
If there is desired a partnership State-NGOs for public services delivery, performance criteria and accountability issues become important. Where are involved public money, it is absolutely necessary transparency and accountability towards citizens. It should be scrutinized the way the financing was granted as well as the outcomes of the activity.
Many of the services provided by NGOs are social services whose final impact is difficult to be assessed in measurable terms, and this proves why it is so important to have established a general system of service outcome evaluation, common for both public and NGO provider. This is necessary for a fair comparison of the services and as starting point for a healthy competition for performance.
The emergence of what is called “contract culture” seems to solve the both above-mentioned weaknesses. Jones (1996) notes that contract culture “might be experienced as a threat by the voluntary sector, compromising its independence and freedom, but it does also provide opportunities to secure funding for expansion and growth” (Jones, 1996, p. 55)
It is necessary for any NGO that wishes to engage in service delivery to be aware of all the above challenges. It is true that no NGO dedicated to its cause will abandon just because there are difficulties. By being aware of these difficulties NGOs could equip themselves better for “challenging the challenges”.
Salamon calls NGOs’ weaknesses as “types of failure”. In his opinion they are:
“‘Philanthropic insufficiency’ the inability to generate funds;
‘Paternalism’, the tendency of even high – minded community elites to misunderstand the problems of the poor;
‘Particularism’, the tendency of nonprofits to focus on neighborhood, ethnic, or religious groups;
and ‘amateurism’, the reliance of volunteer services and the inability to pay the cots of professionally competent staff” (Salamon quoted in Chasse, 1995, p. 530), and could be overcome, in his opinion, by the partnership with the government.
This chapter that showed the challenges that confront NGOs service delivery could have as final conclusion the idea that a partnership between NGOs and State could be the best solution for public services providing. As Miliband, the UK’s minister for third sector states, “the voluntary sector brought qualities to services and society that the state did not”, while “there are things that state can provide that the voluntary sector cannot” (Thomas, 2006, p. 52). The society needs, according to Miliband, the NGOs involvement in services, as they brought “innovation, engagement with users and a unique ethos” and “the state provided universality and equity of services” (Thomas, 2006, p. 52).
NGO service provision could be a good solution where is needed innovation and rapid reaction in solving a problem. Rose (1974) and Peyton (1989) consider that “innovation and social change are a principal purpose (and contribution to society) of VNPOs (Voluntary and Non-profit organizations)” (Osborne, 1998, p. 66).
In the first section of my essay I have showed that NGOs involvement is traditional to human kind and needed by society. It is obvious that service delivery is the very heart of any NGO activity, so I conclude that indeed, NGOs have to focus on service delivery.
The discussion is whether this involvement should remain only at the intervention level or should became permanent, in other words, if NGOs should get involved into delivering public services.
The funding issues prove that making from NGOs service delivery a long-term activity implies continuous funding. It was shown that a great percentage of governmental funding assisting the finances of NGOs could impede on their independence.
Funding is not the only problem that challenges NGOs when trying to provide long-term public services.
In a crisis situation any help that NGOs provide is welcome, but when NGOs engage themselves into sustainable development activities, let us not forget that performance and efficiency standards come into stage. These standards are required by transparency and accountability demands, but these standards could take away the innovation and flexibility, traits so characteristic to NGO service providing. Without these traits NGOs could transform themselves in just another bureaucratic organism, which is using only statistics and average data in their relation with citizen’s problems.
Because I consider that independence and innovation are the very core characteristic of NGOs, the threat of losing them makes me consider that NGOs should not focus with priority on public services delivery. NGOs should intervene when is obvious that governmental public services cannot cope with the demands. Just to use an example: in Romania the nomad dogs represent a huge problem. The State department that was assigned to deal with this problem proved to be totally ineffective. NGOs got involved in finding a solution and now in Romania the nomad dogs’ issue, even if it is not yet totally solved, found great improvement through NGOs’ contribution.
This is only one example that shows that trough their flexibility and connection to people; NGOs make possible the adaptation to change, to ever evolving social needs.
The literature reveals that the partnership between NGOs and state is the future of public service providing.
The partnership for public services providing between Government and NGOs is not a miracle solution. Even if the participation of citizens (represented by NGOs) is a desired outcome of decentralization and democratization at governmental level, to transfer the responsibility of basic services from state on NGOs shoulders is not fair. The responsibility of public services for poor and socially excluded especially must be undertaken by State. NGOs can help but cannot provide large-scale coordination. This paper shows the difficulties for NGOs that engage in public service delivery. In my opinion, if NGOs undertake the responsibility of providing large scale services, services that exceed their usual funding level and require uninterrupted financing from State, they could behave in time as a State subordinate institution, no longer a non-governmental, independent one.
I consider that more important than service delivery for an NGO is to be the voice of the citizens. The service providing should be a matter of choice for NGOs involvement, especially when the public institutions fail over and over again to do their job or when they cannot provide a certain type of services. I believe that the citizens should not allow the government to pass the responsibility of main public services to NGOs. Governments should take advantage of financial and human resources brought by NGOs in service delivery and should coordinate for efficiency the efforts done voluntarily by the civil society.
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