The voluntary sector is "rarely front and centre of government thinking", according to Lord Kerslake, the former head of the civil service.
Speaking at the think tank NPC’s annual conference in London yesterday, Kerslake said the government generally had a positive view of the charity sector, but it was "rarely the first thing that comes to either ministers' or officials’ minds when they are developing policy or seeking to tackle a problem".
Kerslake, who left the civil service 18 months ago and sits as a crossbench peer, said the government often thought about "what the sector can bring to its problem – what does it want to achieve? And how can the voluntary and community sector help it achieve that in a better and often cheaper way?"
Kerslake discussed some of the "embedded prejudices" in the outlook of political parties, describing the Conservative view of charities as "left-leaning, protectionist and often inefficient", whereas Labour thought the sector was "doing things that ultimately the state should do".
This echoed similar concerns raised by Vicky McDermott, chief executive of the Papworth Trust, at the Conservative Party conference last week. She told a fringe meeting that charities risked being seen as "left-wing, sandal-wearing hippies".
Kerslake also asked why "such an enormous and powerful sector" as the charity sector "feels the need to court the affection of government rather than the other way around", considering its large workforce and economic impact.
"Think about any other sector in the UK and whether they would be worrying about what the government thought about them if they were that big, influential and powerful," he said.
"The sector does have to constructively engage with government, and it of course makes sense to have influence on the issues that matter to the sector, in the same way that Sir Richard Branson would do so for Virgin.
"But it should be done from a position of strength, not weakness. You are the strongest person in the room when you are having a dialogue with government."
Kerslake said the sector should look for "an open, respectful and professional relationship with government", but avoid a "love-in".
He said: "Don’t seek a love-in, because you will be unrequited lovers – at some point it will go badly wrong. The sector has a huge amount to offer the government, and they need you more than you need them. But you have to stand apart and have an independent voice.
"My experience of government is that they respect those who stand up and challenge even if they don’t like it. The worst thing you can do is to be seen to cower down to government, because in the end they’ll get you."
He said this relationship meant the voluntary sector sometimes took on "contracts that were doomed to fail from the start", and stressed that charities did not need to say yes to every opportunity to have a good relationship with government.