Opinion: United leadership, please

Simon Hebditch calls for a common front to lobby politicians.

The political season is well under way once more, with the party conferences, the imminent return of Parliament, and the prospect of a long election process. Charities and voluntary organisations are not immune from that process, and all the main political parties will be playing their voluntary sector cards with increasing vigour: the next 12 months will be crucial in deciding the future direction of the sector.

In this febrile political atmosphere, I believe it is essential that a united leadership is offered by the major organisations in the sector. We cannot afford unnecessary splits and arguments that serve only to enable the political parties to divide and rule.

I am aware that this is not easy. The sector is well known for demanding leadership and then complaining when such leadership is exerted. Maybe that is the price of a diverse and democratically responsive sector. But the effort should be made by umbrella bodies the NCVO and Navca, the chief executives body Acevo and a number of other leading organisations to agree a common manifesto that reflects the needs of the sector as a whole.

A manifesto forum should be established that would bring together organisations to agree on the four or five centrally important themes they want the main parties to adopt in their manifestos. The forum would allocate responsibilities for campaigning on these themes over the next 12 months and monitor progress. Without such a concerted approach, the main political parties will be able to divide and rule the sector yet again.

The forum I am proposing must decide on the final range of campaigning objectives. But there are three areas that I think need to be a focus for the sector: giving legal teeth to the Compact; opening up a fair tender process for public service delivery, which will encourage charities to get involved; and the next wave of financial incentives and tax reliefs after the previous major reforms in 2000.

Two other vital themes are service delivery and independence. It is vital that a future government, whatever its political colour, sees voluntary organisations as partners in the provision of first-class services. Such groups must be involved in the creation and development of appropriate services - not just peripheral providers. The opportunities for expansion are clear: only about 2 per cent of public services are offered by voluntary organisations. It should be a modest aim to treble this over the next five years. Recent initiatives by Nacro and Rainer Crime Concern to play a part in managing prison services are welcome.

But not all voluntary organisations want to get involved in public service provision. It is probably a small minority that either can or wish to throw their hats into the ring. Most voluntary organisations are small, dedicated local groups that have identified particular causes that enthuse them and which they are pursuing, day in and day out, for the benefit of local communities.

None of the main political parties would argue against the independence of the voluntary sector. The door is open. But the devil is in the detail, and charities and voluntary groups must not feel that they are under pressure from funders - nationally, locally or regionally - to water down either their messages or their objectives.

There should therefore be a vigorous campaign designed to reinforce the central importance of the independence of the voluntary sector. But it must be conducted in relation to the conditions of 2008, not 1998. The principle of independence stands, but the social and economic environment is changing and our arguments must reflect current reality. Over the years, many politicians have tried to drive a wedge between charities and voluntary organisations in terms of campaigning and service delivery - as though organisations have to choose between them.

But many charities have successfully taken on both roles, providing much-needed services to individuals or communities while simultaneously campaigning to change the environment in which people work. There is no reason why these two functions can't be run together. Why should the powers that be listen to campaigners who have no experience of working directly with users? Equally, organisations shouldn't just provide services without raising issues that concern them in the public arena.

Finally, a perennial target for opposition parties at election time is the plethora of quangos distributing public funds. The Conservatives have already put down the inevitable marker that they will cut a swathe through Whitehall's non-departmental public bodies.

Rather than wait for the challenge to be mounted, I believe it would be sensible for bodies working with voluntary organisations, such as Futurebuilders, Capacitybuilders and the new Community Builders, to talk together now about how they could organise themselves to meet their objectives at a lower central cost.

- Simon Hebditch is an independent consultant and former chief executive of Capacitybuilders.

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