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Relationships – broken and building

photo of Peter GlensorPeter Glensor
General Manager, Hui E!

It was a tragedy to learn that Relationships Aotearoa has decided to close down.  Many of us have been inspired over the years by people whose skills in personal relationships, and passion for social justice, were developed by what was then the Marriage Guidance movement.  So much of what we take for granted today as helpful ways of building strong teams and strong organisations we learnt from them.  And there are countless people whose lives have been enriched, some even saved, by the skilful intervention of counselling – provided by both paid and unpaid people – but all professionals.

What was particularly unsettling was the unedifying public squabbling that led up to the business decision to close the agency.  Contracts were not delivered – yes they were.  The organisation had undergone huge change – no it has refused to adopt the changes needed.  Extra funding is needed – extra funding has already been provided.  What alarmed many of us was that this clear evidence of a breakdown of any partnership was couched purely in the language of commerce.  It was about contracts and deficits and delivery of services and engagement of providers.  Of course the government is free to change the services it wishes to purchase – just as it’s free to change the range of furniture it buys.  Of course NGOs can’t continue to run deficits.  Private businesses can – provided their shareholders agree.  Governments of course can and do – there is a guaranteed backup in the form of the tax base – for as long as the voters signal it’s OK.  But most NGOs have no capital pool from which they can dip in bad times.

The government speakers told of a long process where they had worked with the agency to try to redress the situation, to no avail.  In my own discussions with senior officials I heard the same thing, and I’m sure it was so.  I have no information at all about the ins and outs of this particular situation.  But what is clear is that any relationship there may have been had broken down, and all we are left with are public recriminations.

Within our sector, around 20 national networking groups belong to ComVoices – aiming to speak out in support of the community and voluntary sector.  For the past twelve months we have been increasingly concerned at the state of the relationship between our sector and the central government.  We have frequently approached government ministers and officials with our concerns.

Most recently we wrote in December last year – naming relationships as the key issue at stake – not money or contracts or service delivery.  Our message was “a capable and effective community sector is committed to a relationship with central government that looks like a partnership.  We believe that relationship is not working, and we want to talk with you about how to build such a relationship.”  Already we have had some valuable conversations about this, but clearly we have a long way to go.

I make no judgement at all about the specifics of what is happening with Relationships Aotearoa.  But I do believe there are some important issues that both central government and ourselves need to come together about:

·         the sector shares with central government a desire to build strong communities and a thriving nation;

·         everyone acknowledges that community agencies add demonstrable value to communities, in addition to the services they provide, in the form of community building;

·         both government and community agencies want to ensure best value for money, and there is strong evidence that community sector agencies retain their tradition of being “lean and mean”;

·         when we work together as partners we are more likely to produce stronger outcomes than when we adopt a purely commercial – buyer/ seller – relationship.

There are many leaders in our sector, and in central government, who have the will and the skill to rebuild a partnership relationship, based around firm principles and shared values – including a pretty hard-headed realism about money and efficiency and outcomes.

Maybe the closing of such a significant community group as Relationships Aotearoa is our chance to re-open that possibility?