Interview: On the inside track

Dame Mavis McDonald, Chair of Acevo's commissioning inquiry, has two main messages for the sector about winning public work.

Dame Mavis McDonald
Dame Mavis McDonald

The Whitehall skills of Dame Mavis McDonald were plain to see when she led Acevo's inquiry into the voluntary sector commissioning fiasco at the Department for Work and Pensions.

The chief executives body asked her to chair the inquiry when, despite expectations fuelled partly by ministers, the DWP awarded only two out of 16 contracts to the sector in the first round of its Pathways to Work programme.

In a crisp 19 pages, McDonald summarised events, came up with a series of practical recommendations and slapped ministerial wrists in a discreet, Sir Humphrey-esque manner. "It is essential," she concluded, "that consideration be given at the highest level to how preferred outcomes should be balanced and a clear steer provided to procurement officers before any procurement route is chosen. If this is not done, the rhetoric of policy objectives can lead to expectations which cannot be met."

That's as near as most mandarins would get to saying that ministers should keep their eyes on the ball, and that if they don't say what they want, they won't get it. Her report made clear that ministers had earlier told the civil servants to save money, and hadn't added instructions about sector-friendly procurement.

With more than 35 years' experience in Whitehall, what other messages does McDonald have as the sector ventures deeper into the scary territory of bidding for more, and larger, public service contracts?

There are two, neither entirely reassuring. The first is that government departments are big machines that respond only slowly to cross-cutting policies such as promoting the use of the voluntary sector.

The creation of the Office of the Third Sector has given that policy some "oomph", she says, and there is a lot going on in various departments that offers clear opportunities for voluntary organisations.

"The OTS and the Cabinet Office have the lead role, and you need both the clout and one or two mechanisms to go and ask other departments what's going on," she says.

"You probably need a clear understanding of what the key programmes are in those departments that might be open to the third sector. I don't detect that this is not happening, but it is a quite rigorous role."

Her second point is about the third sector getting its act together. "Progress depends on the sector demonstrating that it offers services that are as good as anything else, and value for money," McDonald says. "There has to be a proven worth.

"There is a lot to be said for working out what your strengths and weaknesses are, promoting the former and tackling the latter, and for having some sympathy with the position of the other party.

"I don't detect a great sense of wanting to work together, to pool resources on those things such as overheads and back office that would help give the sector some capacity to operate on a larger scale. Smaller bodies think they'll be swallowed up if they get too close."

McDonald thinks such collaboration, extending even to the private sector, would increase the capacity of charities to take on the larger financial risks that prompted some third sector contenders to withdraw their bids for Pathways to Work contracts. It would also allow smaller organisations to profit from 'framework contracts', where a large organisation takes the lead but draws in others.

"Things are much better now for the third sector," she concludes. "But the environment shifts, priorities shift, people change and you have to hang in there with considerable commitment if things are to carry on."

<h2>McDonald CV</h2>

2005: Left ODPM. Current posts include deputy chair of governors, Birkbeck College, London, and trustee, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

2002: Permanent Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

2000: Permanent Secretary, Cabinet Office

1996: Director general, Housing Construction, Regeneration and Countryside Group

1966: Joined Ministry of Housing and Local Government as politics graduate from London School of Economics. Various jobs in successor departments.

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