Let’s re-think “duplication of services”

In Alberta, across Canada, and beyond governments and other funders are facing difficult challenges about how to balance budgets while ensuring optimal services and opportunities for citizens. I feel for them. I do hope that our government colleagues make choices that recognize the cyclical nature of the economy.

Things will improve. Paring the budget should be done with the future in mind. Cuts that go too deep can destroy infrastructure and sometimes go so far that in better times we cannot recover.

I do worry about the tendency of governments and funders to use “duplication of services” as a rationale for cuts. In fact I think duplication of services as a rationale can pose a barrier to using other more appropriate criteria for funding decisions, especially during difficult times.

It is interesting that I don’t hear an outcry about “duplication” in the private sector. When you walk down Jasper Avenue, does it upset you that there are so many coffee shops? How many cell phone companies do we need? How many financial advisors? How many grocery stores or dry cleaners or gas stations?

No one thinks twice about that. Why? Because the wisdom is that businesses are market driven, based on competition, and those that thrive or at least survive will do so for reasons other than “duplication.”

If you think about it, it makes sense to have a variety of organizations providing similar services. In urban and rural settings, people require services in reasonable proximity to their work or home, as well as services that can address their particular circumstances, culture, age, income, and value systems. The differences among the recipients of services are the same differences that guide market driven companies.

It is why new companies are formed that offer various versions of the same product or service: to meet the diverse needs and aspirations of people.

But there is even a bigger reason why “duplication” should be a non-issue in the non profit sector. Voluntary agencies are rooted in active citizenship – people organizing around an issue or a cause, working together to fill a void or offer a new way of helping.

To contrain citizenship to limiting people to only creating something totally distinct from every other service seems inappropriate, if not unwise.

If we truly believe that duplication is bad, we would only need one government. Forget provincial and municipal governments. Let the Feds do it all. Okay. Just joking. But you get the point (I hope).

Non Profits should be measured on the extent to which they address community priorities, operate effciently and most importantly achieve the outcomes or results they agree to achieve for the funding they receive.

Funders should make decisions based on community priorities and the resources they have to invest in them. Just counting up the number of organizations that exist (by the way half of the non profits in Alberta don’t receive any funding) begs the question: what is the acceptable number and who gets to decide that?

Just assumming non profits should merge is another simple-to-say position. Mergers can make sense, and they should be considered when doing so can achieve efficiencies without decreasing results or impact. Mergers for the sake of mergers is not a position that can be defended with any depth.

Oh yeh, and mergers take time and cost money to do. Who will fund that?

This is not to say that non profits shouldn’t be seeking innovations and out of the box solutions to fiscal challenges. But another slant on this is actually that non profits owe it to their constituents to be looking for new and better ways all the time – for the sake of improving lives and social conditions. And you know what? They have a pretty good track record at doing just that.

Governments and the Voluntary Sector would be better served if we sought new models, alternative approaches, and innovations that increased the quality of life of people with strong stewardship as one guiding principle.

Let’s stop the old mantra about duplication of services and mergers being the pat answer. There are better ways to use our minds, energy, and commitment to the community.

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