Outside Edge: Preaching, not practising

Tash Shifrin, a specialist social affairs writer

If the Government is so keen on the added value the sector brings, why does it not learn from its best ideas, asks Tash Shifrin.

"The Government's reform agenda heralds a potentially greater role for the voluntary sector - and there is political commitment to making it happen." So said Alan Milburn in one of last year's pre-election warm-up speeches.

At the time, Milburn was a backbencher, albeit one with an unofficial job as Tony Blair's kite-flyer. "The voluntary sector provides a new third way," he chirped. "Over this next decade, it should become as integral to public service delivery in Britain as either the public or private sectors."

Now he is back, this time as Labour's election supremo and chief manifesto writer. As the election draws nearer, will voluntary sector leaders still feel the long arm of Alan Milburn around their shoulders?

Quite possibly so. Renewed government backing for increased public service delivery by charities seems likely - to the joy of many in the voluntary sector.

But it is always worth asking why the embrace of the Government's big-shots is so tender. Do ministers really believe the sector has something special to offer? Or are they merely seeking reinforcement for their ideological drive to break up public provision of public services with "a greater diversity" of providers?

Here's a little test: if ministers are so impressed with the 'added value' voluntary organisations bring to public services, why don't they try learning from it? A case in point is the RNID's pioneering deal to bring digital hearing aids to deaf people on the NHS.

The charity couldn't stand the poor quality, low-tech hearing aids on offer to national health patients any longer, and elbowed its way into negotiating with the manufacturers on the NHS's behalf.

The RNID's intervention drove down the price by making the most of the NHS's bulk purchasing power, and now the digital aids cost the NHS £57 each, rather than the £2,500 that they had cost previously. The deal has been held up - quite rightly - as an example of how fresh thinking from the voluntary sector can improve public services.

Strangely, though, there is no sign of the Government replicating this breakthrough in a bid to transform other services.

You might have expected a thorough review of NHS purchasing arrangements, to see if RNID-style negotiating tactics could be made to work elsewhere, saving the NHS a bucketload of cash.

But such a move seems not to have occurred to ministers. Could it be that they are less interested in taking notice of ideas coming out of the voluntary sector and more interested in getting it to deliver services on the cheap - privatisation in a velvet glove? It certainly looks like it.

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