EDITORIAL: Deliver services but retain ethos of independence

Lucy Maggs

The start of the new year finds the voluntary sector at a defining moment in its history. The contracting out of health, education and other services is now an important part of the Government's agenda, and politicians have come to realise that voluntary organisations can often deliver these services better than the private sector. Considering the public's trepidation about privatisation, the not-for-profit nature of charities also makes them a more voter-friendly option.

The draft charities bill, announced in the Queen's Speech in November, is likely to support the Government's agenda to enable organisations to deliver more services and many are ready to embrace this opportunity.

Voluntary organisations often have the expertise to run public services better than local authorities or private companies.

Taking on contracts will give them the ideal opportunity to grow and work closely with government, thereby increasing their influence as to how services are delivered.

But at such a significant time, charities need to remember - and make sure they retain - what it is that sets them apart from the public sector.

Their job is to provide services, but also to challenge government when necessary. These are independent organisations and must not be swallowed up by the state.

It is their ability to be innovative and flexible in the services they deliver that marks voluntary organisations out from the public sector.

And as they are not as big and unwieldy as local authorities they can be more imaginative in their approach and adapt services to the needs of users.

Although the possibility of growth is appealing, charities need to make sure that when they take on services previously run by government they don't end up mimicking the worst aspects of the public sector, and in particular its bureaucratic and rigid nature.

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