What commissioners really think of charities

Research shows more than half of commissioners do not believe charities have the resources to deliver public services. John Plummer reports on how a new programme plans to change that.

In two months' time, the first batch of 2,000 public sector employees will take part in a new training programme that has been created to encourage them to commission more services from the voluntary sector. Judging by research published today, they need it.

The research, Evaluation of the National Programme for Third Sector Commissioning, is published by the Improvement and Development Agency, the group that will deliver the training. It suggests that problems between charities and commissioners run as deep as the sceptics believe.

One of the most worrying findings of the report is that, although most commissioners believe charities do a good job, they don't think that job is delivering services. To put it bluntly, they don't think charities are up to it.

Eighty-seven per cent of commissioners say third sector organisations understand users; 83 per cent think the third sector brings something unique to public service delivery; and 70 per cent regard the third sector as a source of innovation.

But 51 per cent believe third sector organisations "often don't have the resources or capacity to successfully manage third sector contracts". On top of that, 37 per cent agree that the sector needs to "be more professional" and 22 per cent believe it is less efficient than private and public sector providers.

The IDeA will repeat the survey in May next year on completion of the first phase of the National Programme for Third Sector Commissioning. It hopes it will provide a regular snapshot of attitudes towards charities delivering services.

The £2m national programme, which is being funded by the Office of the Third Sector, was set up to help commissioners understand what the third sector can offer (Third Sector, 14 March 2007). It won't be an easy task. The programme's manager, Sarah Wood, says the contradiction between commissioners praising charities yet being reluctant to award them contracts is one of the biggest challenges. "It's probably because of a lack of awareness of what the sector can offer," she says.

Wood says anxiety among charities about the effects of commissioning is her other main concern: 37 per cent of charities fear a loss of independence and 41 per cent think delivering services poses a potential conflict with their advocacy roles. Voluntary organisations have argued fiercely in recent months about the extent to which accepting public sector money compromises their independence, and Wood says the research suggests these fears are well founded.

But there is some good news. "Broadly speaking, the third sector is being involved in commissioning," says the report. Only 22 per cent of third sector organisations have never been involved in service planning; on the other side of the fence, only 2 per cent of commissioners say they do not involve the third sector at all in service planning. Virtually all say the third sector delivers some services on their behalf.

Unsurprisingly, the picture changes according to size: 69 per cent of large charities deliver services compared with 30 per cent of small ones. But the report says there is no "consistent and meaningful engagement of the third sector in service planning and needs analysis". It adds that many charities are poorly rewarded and think that the risks of delivering services are too high. Forty-one per cent of voluntary organisations do not think procurement processes are fair and transparent and 80 per cent agree that the bureaucracy around procurement could be difficult to negotiate.

The thorny issue of long-term funding remains high on the agenda: only 7 per cent of commissioners offer contracts for longer than three years. Primary care trusts and the Learning and Skills Council are named, and many would say shamed, as the most likely public sector organisations to offer one-year contracts.

PCTs are particularly unlikely to contract with the voluntary sector. "PCTs are very aware of the situation and are keen to address it," says Wood. Across the entire public sector, only 18 per cent of commissioners have mapped voluntary sector providers in the past year. This means most probably have little understanding of which charities in their area exist, yet alone what they can offer.

Ongoing research should give pointers as to whether things are improving, but Wood says it is difficult to set targets. "If you raise the game, you raise expectations," she says. "I have a horrible feeling the figures could come back to bite me."

Ben Wittenberg, director of policy and research at the Directory of Social Change, says the statistics reflect the feedback he gets from charities.

"The situation really is that bad," he says. Although he welcomes the training programme, Wittenberg doesn't think it will make much difference.

"It goes to individuals who can make a difference to the sector on a day-to-day level, which is good," he says. "But it's three days per person plus some supplementary dates. If the sector is such a core part of statutory engagement, surely the training should be integrated so it's happening all the time."

Seb Elsworth, head of policy at chief executives body Acevo, says the research highlights the huge variation in commissioners' attitudes to the voluntary sector. But he says strong leadership and robust governance should allay fears that delivering services jeopardises independence.

What the Commissioners will learn

Commissioners are expected to attend three training days: the first will take place in April or May, the second in October or November and the third in April or May next year. There will be some supplementary training in between.

Central government has already submitted nominations for people to take part. However, not all local authorities and primary care trusts have done so. The candidates will be agreed on 19 March by the advisory group of the National Programme for Third Sector Commissioning, which will also finalise the course content.

Sarah Wood, the programme's manager, says the first day is likely to cover issues such as 'what is commissioning?' and 'what is the third sector?' as well as basic information on subjects such as Tupe regulations governing transfer of staff, VAT and financial regulations.

It will also include a session on 'myths explored and exploded'. The second day will look at the development of commissioning. The third day's content has not yet been finalised.

Courses will be held across the country and local voluntary organisation representatives will be invited to attend each one.

"I'm hoping each of the three days will be a good networking opportunity," says Wood.

Commissioning in numbers

7% - The percentage of commissioners that offer contracts for longer than three years. Thirty-eight per cent offer three-year contracts

51% - The proportion of commissioners that think charities don't have the resources or capacity to successfully manage public service contracts

46% - The proportion of survey respondents that receive funding for delivering services. There is significant variation according to size: 69 per cent of larger charities deliver services compared with 30 per cent of small ones

77% - The percentage of primary care trusts that award fewer than 10 per cent of their contracts to third sector organisations

64% - The proportion of third sector organisations that think the public sector regards them as amateurish even though only 11 per cent of commissioners say they hold this view.

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