Editorial: Either way, we need government reform

Stephen Cook, editor

Anyone wanting to use the summer break for reflection on the future role of the voluntary sector could do worse than pack a brace of slim volumes in their beach bag alongside the latest Harry Potter: Communities in Control: Creating Better Public Services, published by Acevo and the Social Market Foundation; and The Reform of Public Services: the Role of the Voluntary Sector, published by the NCVO. Both are about the challenges of public service delivery, but they take rather different approaches.

The Acevo report is specific and prescriptive, urging the Government to follow through on its manifesto pledges about the voluntary sector, pushing for the creation of a cross-governmental team to make things happen and naming the services where the sector could play a much bigger part.

It says employment training, children's services, correctional services and the supply of independent living aids should be the priorities, and cites as a precedent the mass transfer of social housing from local authorities to housing associations in the 80s and 90s. Let's get on with things, it seems to say.

The NCVO report, by contrast, states that its purpose is to pause, take stock and think through the implications of the many advances that have been made recently. It argues that the voluntary sector should not be pitching for public services at any cost, that the role of the sector in public service reform is about strategy as well as delivery and that delivery brings risks as well as opportunities. It also reminds us that the present relationship with government is the best the sector has ever had. The message seems to be: let's avoid getting too excited, and take things sensibly, one step at a time.

Whatever the approach, however, the future of voluntary sector service delivery will remain unpromising without some significant change within government. That's why the Acevo report is right to press for the creation of a cross-departmental unit in Whitehall, one capable of creating common standards for the transfer of public services to the sector. Without it, we'll just muddle on, with the same problems being solved slowly in different ways by different departments. Above all, local authorities, which make so many of the contractual decisions, must be brought on board.

Both the head of the Active Communities Directorate and his minister, Paul Goggins, have told Third Sector they want to get on with this vital project. Let's hope it takes months rather than years.

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