OPINION: Negotiating the final obstacles to partnership

Geraldine Peacock, a charity commissioner and a civil service commissioner

Partnerships with the voluntary sector have recently been an issue at the forefront of discussion by prominent people.

At the Active Community Directorate Advisory Panel, the talk was not just of what the state could do for the citizen, but about how it could help individuals and communities to help themselves. And at the Home Office/Acevo away-day, Geoff Mulgan, head of Downing Street's Policy Unit, spoke enthusiastically about the growing influence of the sector in shaping policy. He also highlighted the opportunities for the sector that the new charities bill will bring.

At the same meeting Sir Andrew Turnbull, head of the Cabinet Office, analysed the pitfalls and advantages of possible long-term funding arrangements between the Government and the sector.

In the previous week, Tony Blair spelled out his belief in the nature of the partnership between government and the voluntary sector in both defining a framework for citizen engagement and service delivery. And Michael Howard identified an integral role for the sector in his shadow cabinet's plans.

So now is the hour and it's time for action. But what action, who takes it and how? Three Toms may have the answer - Elliot, Paine and Jefferson.

Tom Elliot said: "Most of the trouble in this world is caused by people wanting to be important." Too true - both in the sector and in political parties there are people who talk partnership but do control. We need to both talk and do partnerships.

Tom Paine reflected my own view on what any government needs to do when he wrote: "Government, even in its best state, is a necessary evil." Modern governments should focus on facilitating a policy and strategy framework within which individuals, organisations, alliances and communities can contribute to both definition and delivery.

Which brings us to Thomas Jefferson, whose wise words from the past are every bit as relevant today. He said: "The government that is best governs least, because its people govern themselves."

This is what we need: a government that facilitates and establishes boundaries, liberates and regulates. It should fire the imagination of the sector and of individual citizens to develop new ways of working and new ways of achieving. Carpe diem!

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