The government has announced a raft of measures to tackle the challenges small charities face when bidding for public service delivery contracts.
The Public Service Programme, unveiled yesterday by Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, includes a public service incubator, which he said would allow small charities to collaborate with commissioners to develop user-centred services, record the positive impact commissioning small charities can have and create guides to overcoming the barriers they face.
It will also include a commissioning kitemark that will set a best-practice standard for commissioners, and will require the recruitment of a voluntary, community and social enterprise crown representative to encourage small charity-friendly commissioning practices and act as an intermediary between the sector and government.
The role of crown representative has been vacant since Michael O’Toole, who was the first person to hold the post, stepped down in 2014 after two years.
Sir Martyn Lewis, the former chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, will chair a sector-led implementation group to put the proposals into practice, said Wilson.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is asking for expressions of interest to participate in the group from across the sector, with members to be chosen by Wilson and Lewis with support from the Office for Civil Society, a DCMS spokeswoman said.
The spokeswoman said Lewis would not be paid and the group was scheduled to have its first meeting in early 2017.
She said: "The implementation group is expected to be active until delivery of the policies commence in 2017/18."
Wilson said: "I want to empower the voluntary sector to be the very best it can be, and harness its expertise so we can improve people’s lives in communities across the country.
"That’s why it’s so important that we do all we can to help local charities and social enterprises to make connections and help shape and deliver public services across the country.
"I want these proposals not only to benefit communities, but also to help charities become more sustainable in the future."
Lewis said he was encouraged by the move to support small charities and looked forward to chairing the implementation group.
"Strengthening collaboration between small charities and commissioners has long been the aim of many in the voluntary sector," he said.
The announcement, which has been cautiously welcomed by organisations working with small charities, comes a week after the Lloyds Bank Foundation published a damning report, Commissioning in Crisis, which found that commissioning was squeezing small and medium-sized charities out of service provision.
Paul Streets, the foundation’s chief executive, said it was crucial that the programme was implemented quickly and enforced by central government. He said the "acid test" for the measures would be whether they made a tangible difference to small charities and communities.
Peter Holbrook, chief executive of Social Enterprise UK, said: "The recommendations are a helpful but incremental step forward, but on the face of it are unlikely to tackle the considerable barriers for social enterprises and charities in winning work from the public sector."
He said he hoped the reinstated role of crown representative would also champion a stronger Public Services (Social Value) Act and greater government commitment to transparency of public sector contracts.
"While we acknowledge that government has paid attention to some of these issues, there is still much to be done," he said.
Neil Cleeveley, chief executive of the local infrastructure body Navca, described the programme as an exciting initiative and said he was delighted that Wilson had made the issue a priority.
Tony Armstrong, chief executive of the community group membership charity Locality, said: "We hope this inspires the step change across commissioning that is required.
"We look forward to working with the Public Services Programme’s implementation group."