Editorial: How ministers failed to turn rhetoric into reality

The announcement in September that only two out of 16 first-phase Pathways to Work contracts would be awarded to voluntary organisations put a serious dent in widely held ambitions, repeatedly endorsed by the Government, that the sector should deliver more public services of this kind.

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

Last week's report by an independent inquiry, set up by Acevo and chaired by the former civil servant Dame Mavis McDonald, sets out what happened, and why, with admirable clarity and brevity. It is a dispiriting tale of the left hand of government failing to join up with the right, and of ministers failing to follow through effectively on their undertakings - albeit, in this instance, in a difficult timescale with some extenuating political circumstances.

The procurement process for Pathways to Work, the latest scheme from the Department for Work and Pensions to get people off benefits and back into work, was well under way by the time the Office of the Third Sector published its public services action plan last December. This affirmed that the sector had an enormous amount to contribute to public services, especially in the area of welfare to work, and called for a step change in the quality of sector-government interaction. The DWP procurement process, however, had been designed, above all, to meet EU rules and the Government's earlier requirement, following the 2004 Gershon review, that half the £960m savings the department must make by the current financial year should come from procurement processes. This inevitably meant a bias towards finding a small number of big providers - precisely the approach that would disadvantage the third sector, with its smaller, more local focus.

There was surely still time to make sure the DWP's commissioning process, which did not reach its final stages until the summer of this year, was better aligned with the OTS action plan. But this was a period when the OTS was busy finalising yet another document, the third sector review (which also, of course, endorsed the sector's service delivery role). It was also the period when the impending Blair-Brown handover almost paralysed the process of government; and when the handover came, there was a change of minister at the OTS and everyone went on holiday. Soon after the return, the DWP produced a set of decisions that reduced the voluntary sector's share of the work in the districts concerned from 44 per cent under the predecessor scheme - the New Deal for Disabled People - to 13 per cent under Pathways to Work. Given the earlier rhetoric, no wonder the sector was angry and disappointed.

In the circumstances, it's hard to blame the DWP commissioners, who are duty bound to do what they're asked unless someone tells them otherwise. As the McDonald report says, a government that has legitimate but sometimes conflicting objectives over public services should think about the balance of outcomes it wants in any given case and give procurement officers "a clear steer". It seems ministers weren't paying enough attention to do that, and a long-standing impression is reinforced that this Government is good at announcing endless objectives, but less good at following through - good at politics, but not so good at administration. We wait with interest for the decisions on the second phase of Pathways to Work.

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