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Christian Service News

Issue 33 (October 2001)

Topic : Director's Column

The challenge of Voluntary Agency

Mr Ng Shui Lai

Voluntary agencies in Hong Kong have found themselves in a totally different environment. The kind of social problems they are facing are much complicated than before and hence more sophisticated intervention skills and models, such as family therapy, case management, integrated community based centre and alike, are called for. Greater accountability is required from government, funding sources and general public; thus service quality becomes a central concern. The major sponsor, i.e. the government, has changed its funding mode from input control to output control. The success of voluntary agencies in the past 40 years in empowering the service recipients had witnessed a fast growth of user groups and demands in greater participation.

The paradigm of a loosely defined "partnership" between government and voluntary agency is shifting to a new paradigm of a tripartite relationship of funder, purchaser and provider. Although voluntary agency has been and is being seen, as a matter of fact, representing the service recipients without questions, the change is imminent.

Voluntary agencies in Hong Kong are being shaped by the use of new technology (both in management and in the delivery of services) internally as well as their responses to the force of competition externally.

In fact, the business world has been challenged by such similar change far earlier than that of which the social welfare service sector is facing. In spite of different causes perhaps, the manifestations of the problems are comparable. Hence, the experience seen in the business sectors is worth the consideration by the social welfare sectors, although some of the unique characteristics of the latter must be taken into account when adopting the experience of the former.

The responses to the increasing demand of technology are to imply "strategic human resources management" and to transform the agency into a learning organization.

To positively counter competition, organizations are becoming customer focused, efficient in responsiveness to needs, quality oriented and to keep on improving. Another common reaction to competitive pressure is business process re-engineering. Pressure has made businesses to become "lean and mean", downsizing, cutting out layers of management of supervision and reducing permanent staff to a core of essential workers.

How these experiences in the business sectors can and should be used in social welfare field is a big challenge. Nonetheless, one thing I am quite certain of is that unless a voluntary agency chooses to respond promptly to the challenge of change or it loses the chance to ever respond to it, as no voluntary agency can exist in its present form for long.