The voluntary sector is becoming more involved in forming government policies. This role brings new opportunities for charities but has also blurred the distinction between government and the sector. This could affect charities' ability to represent their beneficiaries and criticise policy makers
Campbell Robb, director of public policy, NCVO
Charities have always played an important role in policy development.
It is the responsibility of every voluntary organisation to consider what form of critical engagement it undertakes to support policy development in partnership with government. They must, of course, go into these relationships with their eyes open as it is also every voluntary organisation's responsibility to remain independent and ensure its policies are in the interests of its beneficiaries.
The Compact states that a voluntary organisation should be able to advocate freely irrespective of its funding relationship with government. Organisations must use the Compact and, if necessary, the newly launched Compact Advocacy Programme which is ready to take on cases of the breach of this principle on their behalf. Working with government, influencing policy development and criticising government policies are not mutually exclusive activities.
An organisation can bring about change while participating in government-led working groups to help shape future policies on areas critical to their key stakeholders.
Gary Craig, professor of social justice, University of Hull
Our research, reported in Third Sector last week, doesn't suggest that any voluntary organisation drawn into the policy debate and formation with government, local government or the health service will necessarily be co-opted into the agendas of these more powerful partners. But there is a real danger that they can be and they must be aware of the tensions which face them if they choose to engage more actively in policy formation.
We found examples of organisations and individuals that had enthusiastically embraced partnership, working at local or central government levels, and which were now detached from any local constituency. In the view of our respondents, these people had lost local legitimacy and were ineffective in advocating voluntary sector agendas. But we also identified organisations which had become fully engaged in policy formation but had retained their political and organisational distance. They felt comfortable sitting round the partnership table while simultaneously campaigning against aspects of policy of which they didn't approve. Voluntary organisations have to continue campaigning and arguing constructively for change, but remember from where their legitimacy derives.
Dame Helen Reeves, chief executive, Victim Support
Influencing government policy is an important part of our work and is directly linked to the services we offer.
Feedback from service users is at the heart of our own policies, which in turn influence government legislation. We have developed a strong working partnership with the Home Office, but that is not to say that we do not tell it when we think it gets it wrong. For example, when restorative justice policies were first drafted, we felt that they were too focused on the offender. We insisted that they consider victims' interests too. Our views are respected in government and our ideas have been turned into government policy without needing to mount huge campaigns. We have established a good working relationship that has ensured that victims are at the heart of government and policy makers' decisions.
Richard Kramer, head of policy, Turning Point
Turning Point knows from its own experience as a service provider that the voluntary sector provides more flexible and user-responsive services.
An organisation such as Turning Point has its own objectives and these can coincide with those of government.
But this does not make the voluntary sector an agent of the state, nor should it prevent Turning Point from challenging government or taking on a campaigning role by representing the views of our beneficiaries to our elected representatives. Indeed, our experience in delivering front-line, evidence-based services means that we are often better placed to challenge the status quo and promote innovative service delivery.
The challenge for the sector is to ensure that it continues to reflect the needs of its service users and that it remains critical of policy where it thinks that government has departed from good practice.