News analysis: Distinctive? Show us the evidence

The Commons report on charities and public service delivery has sparked vigorous debate.

Parliamentary select committees often like to ruffle a few feathers, and there was no exception to that tradition when the Public Administration Select Committee's report, Public Services and the Third Sector: Rhetoric and Reality, was published last week.

The report, claimed by the committee to be the first dedicated to a third sector issue, summarises its examination of the role of voluntary sector organisations in delivering public services and includes a raft of conclusions, some of which are vigorously disputed.

The much-vaunted level playing field, taken by the committee to mean charities being able to compete on equal terms with counterparts from other sectors, can never be achieved, the report says.

It also says commissioning must become more "intelligent" and should take into account a wider range of criteria when services are being put out to tender. It concludes that the Government's general push to diversify public service provision is correct, and nothing the committee found would be likely to derail that process.

Added value

But the most contentious aspect of the report is the committee's view that there is insufficient evidence to support the common claim that the sector offers any added value when it carries out public sector contracts.

Some in the sector, including Lord Victor Adebowale, chief executive of Turning Point, who had given evidence to the committee, insisted there was "compelling evidence" that the sector was delivering (9 July, page 1).

Others, including Martin Narey, chief executive of Barnardo's, who was also a witness before the committee, said there was nothing inherently distinct about the services third sector organisations could provide.

"My view is that there is nothing the voluntary sector can do that the public sector or the private sector cannot do just as well," he told the committee. "There is nothing special about us."

Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO, said in his evidence that Narey's claim was questionable. "The idea that there is broadly no difference at all between these various groups or organisations competing to provide public services is stuff and nonsense," he said.

Tony Wright MP, chair of the committee, tells Third Sector nobody could deny some excellent services were being delivered by third sector organisations.

"But does the sector as a whole outperform the public and private sectors?" he asks. "The answer seems to be that it might depend on the nature of the service, or who uses it, or how it is commissioned."

If the Government is serious about commissioning more services from the sector, it must pay for an evidence base to be developed, says Wright.

"The Government needs to put its money where its mouth is," he says. "It needs to develop an evidence base of where the sector adds value and where it doesn't."

According to a spokesman for the Office of the Third Sector, the Government has already begun that process. "We have invested £5m in a new independent research centre to build a robust evidence base on the effectiveness and value of the third sector," he says.

Others, such as Jeremy Swain, chief executive of homelessness charity Thames Reach, agree that the evidence base needs developing. But he says his charity is an example of how the sector offers added value - among Thames Reach's 400 staff, 71 have a history of homelessness.

"It's that kind of thing that makes the sector different or distinctive," says Swain. "We're prepared to grapple with the issues that other people want to gingerly pick up and put to one side."

Rachael Maskell, national officer for the not-for-profit sector at trade union Unite and another committee witness, says evidence must also be gathered on whether services should even be farmed out from the public sector in the first place.

"Sometimes we seem to be outsourcing services for the sake of it," she says. "Whether they can be delivered better outside the public sector never seems to have been asked."

The focus must go back to the service-user and what is best for them, says Maskell. This theme is echoed in the report.

Wright says that 'intelligent commissioning' would involve offering smaller scale contracts and help for organisations drawing up their bids.

"That means ensuring contracts are designed in such a way as to play to the strengths of whatever organisations will best deliver for users," he says.

"It means focusing on service quality and not too heavily on service cost. Commissioning has to be about more than cost."

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