Why do people cross the sector divide?

Anthropologist David Lewis on research that explores the increasing movement between the public and third sectors.

Two years ago, sociologist Martin Albrow said the implications of more staff transferring between the private, public and voluntary sectors ought to be considered (Third Sector, 26 October 2005). I recently concluded a study at the London School of Economics about the experiences of one particular group of sector swappers: those who cross between the voluntary and public sectors.

These exchanges are becoming more common in the UK and elsewhere. They include people who move sectors because they get new jobs, are seconded for limited periods or are simultaneously active in both sectors, such as public sector officials who serve on third sector boards.

My study, which was funded as part of the Economic and Social Research Council's non-governmental public action programme, looked at people who crossed over in the UK, Bangladesh and the Philippines. In each country, 20 people talked confidentially about their careers through a detailed work-life history interview.

Most research on the relationship between third sector organisations and government has focused on formal operational issues such as partnerships. Far less is known about what happens at sector boundaries or about informal relationships. These life histories helped to bring people's experiences alive.

In the UK, boundary crossing in both directions has increased since Labour was elected into office in 1997. Some former public servants have found more job satisfaction in the third sector, where they feel they make a clearer contribution to society. A shift in perspective can also bring important new insights. For example, writing in the New Statesman on 13 March 2006, Martin Narey, former chief executive of the National Offender Management Service and now chief executive of Barnardo's, said crossing over made him realise how little he knew.

But the main finding is the way that increasingly flexible governance arrangements have intensified crossover from the third sector into government. Some have found the change of perspective refreshing and found government to be a better place from which to pursue their work, either because they feel they have more access to the levers of power or because they are better resourced. Many keep informal ties with their old organisations, which may then create new levels of interaction between the sectors - for example the 'ex-fams' (former Oxfam employees) who work in a range of government departments and are from time to time contacted for information or advice.

Other informants found the change of organisational culture too difficult and soon returned to the third sector with a stronger sense of their own sector identity. The threat of cooption, of the third sector losing its edge, is an ever-present one. However, even where experiences were negative, many say they nevertheless gained new knowledge, insights and skills.

Some find that the insider knowledge they have gained helps them rethink their third sector work by, for example, providing a more detailed understanding of the policy process, which can help improve advocacy work. Another key finding is the recognition of the important role of the third sector in providing skilled people for work in other sectors. For example, the Department for International Development has recruited heavily from NGOs, particularly in the fields of conflict and humanitarian work.

The research concludes that the boundary between the third sector and the public sector harbours both opportunities and dangers. Crossing from one side to the other can promote creativity, innovation and learning. Boundary-crossers may even experience an epiphany and re-evaluate their ideas and perspectives.

But there are also concerns about 'revolving doors' and the 'poachers turned gamekeepers' that emerge from blurred lines of accountability and the politicisation of previously independent third sector agendas. Some people derive power from straddling the boundary between the sectors, which can create a more balanced perspective, but may also raise concerns about accountability. Despite crossover, there is still a high level of caricature involved in each sector's view of the other, something boundary-crossers can help to challenge. Finally, the study also shows that commitment to a particular sector varies - there are some people who simply prefer to follow issues and jobs, wherever it takes them.

What practical value does the study have? There is potential value in crossover experiences as a source of new learning that can contribute ideas and innovation within sectors. The effectiveness of both sectors can also benefit from practical ideas, such as exchanges and secondments that challenge caricatured sector views.

- David Lewis is reader in social policy at the London School of Economics and an associate of the LSE's Centre for Civil Society. More details of the research are available at www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk.

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